Saturday, April 18, 2015

Barefoot in the Park

Year 7, Day 108 - 4/18/15 - Movie #2,008

BEFORE:   This is the sort of film that I'd typically save for February, since it seems to fall squarely in the "romance" category, but since the number of films on my watchlist is still less than the number of viewing slots left in 2015, I'm still hopeful that I'll be done with the project before next February.  So I'm sort of in clearance mode - everything must go.  

Anyway, in January Robert Redford was TCM's Artist of the Month, and they also did Friday night spotlights on Neil Simon movies, and this is the only film that satisfied both parameters.  I'll deal with the Redford films this week, and then get to other Neil Simon work later.  I don't have many week-long actor chains left on my watchlist, after this I'll only have tributes to Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, and Matthew McConnaughey.  But connecting this tribute to those is a challenge, and also part of the fun.

THE PLOT: Paul, a conservative young lawyer, marries the vivacious Corrie. Their highly passionate relationship descends into comical discord in a five-flight New York City walk-up apartment.

AFTER: The intent here is to showcase a relationship between two very different people - in its own way, it's "The Odd Couple" super-imposed on a marriage - she's fun-loving, he's a workaholic lawyer, or at least he wants to be.  She wants to go out on the town, he's got to get up early the next morning to be in court.  I suggest that Neil Simon cheated by starting the play/film right after their marriage, so we never learn how these two people with different outlooks on life got together in the first place. 

When I was a kid, I had one of those "Visible Man" models - you know, a kit where you assemble a skeleton and internal organs into a clear plastic body.  I painted all of the organs the appropriate colors (or so I believed, but since no one's ever seen a real lung, you can't tell me they're not green), and I got ready to assemble the skeleton, but on my first move with the modeling glue, I attached the shoulder bone to the wrong vertebrae, and soon discovered that the skull/backbone/scapula assembly would not fit inside the clear plastic body.  Any forward progress on the model from that point was impossible, so the unfinished kit sat on a shelf in my closet for years, and my promising medical career was cut short.  Perhaps the lesson should have been "Measure twice, cut once", but instead I learned that if you make a big mistake early, sometimes there's no point in correcting it.  

It's an OK lesson for modeling kits (eventually, I did get better at them, for what it's worth) but it's a terrible lesson for relationships.  True, sometimes you may realize that you've married someone with principles that are fundamentally different than yours, but it's not necessarily a reason to scrap the whole project.  You've got to work to undo the damage and try to put it back together the right way.  If you try that and the pieces still don't fit, then at least you can walk away with your head held high.  

But Corrie in this scenario declares she wants a divorce after just ONE wild night out on the town where her husband, Paul, acts like a total pill.  She doesn't seem to realize that the honeymoon can't last forever, and that at some point, at least one person in the couple needs to have a job, and he (or she) needs to show up for that job on time and prepared.  Instead, she pegs him as a "stuffed shirt" who is incapable of fun - hey, maybe he doesn't like ethnic foods, or underground restaurants in Staten Island who don't seem to understand that there's a health code.  Maybe he just didn't like the way you were connecting with the older lothario who lives up in the attic, and pops in while you're walking around in a shirt and not much else. 

Overall, this sends out a strange message for the kids - by depicting a hedonistic, self-centered irrational woman (who hurt you, Neil Simon?) who wants to scrap everything at the first sign of disagreement.  And if your lady acts irrationally (and I'm not saying that they all do, again, take it up with Neil) your best bet is to get drunk like a homeless man before you decide that you really want the apartment and you should kick HER out.  This is a romance?   

Although the story starts at the Plaza Hotel (I've lost count of how many films this year are set in hotels) the real star of the film is the 5-floor walk-up apartment at 49 W. 10th St. with a tiny bedroom, no bathtub and a hole in the skylight.  It's a chance for me to reflect on all the places I've lived since I moved out of the NYU dorm, which happened to be on East 10th St.   

I spent a summer in a sublet on the lower East Side, which had a loft bed to conserve space, allowing me to hit my head on the ceiling if I happened to wake up without remembering that I was sleeping in a loft bed, so pretty much every morning.  That apartment came with a lovely view of a park where drug mules would spend the morning removing product from the bodies (there are several ways to do this, and none of them are ways you'd want to watch).  But I was also in a relationship for the first time, so I didn't sleep there all the time, and let a friend crash there before he returned to London, and I got in a bit of trouble for that.  

Next I shared an apartment in Rego Park, Queens, with someone I knew from working on music-video shoots, and he was in a relationship, so he was almost never there, but he was letting a friend crash there, so I supposed that's some karmic balance for you.  At least I got the bedroom in that deal, with my roommate sleeping in a tent in the living room, and it was big enough to hold all of my stuff at the time, but the lease came up after only a year. 

Then came the 4th floor walk-up on Prospect Ave. in Brooklyn, with a succession of roommates who came and went, mostly went.  One guy told me he just needed a legal address, and he'd be staying with his still-married girlfriend a few blocks away - that's really the best kind of roommate.  I got married and my wife moved in, but it was hardly the ideal apartment - the steam heat destroyed all of my posters, and any breeze from an open window would blow out the stove's pilot light, plus the Prospect Expressway was right outside the window and two floors down, so heavy truck noise 24/7.  Plus, a four-floor stair climb is fine, unless you have to get groceries, do some laundry, or buy any furniture.

One day in 1992, we found out about condos for sale on the other side of Park Slope, so we looked into getting enough money together for a down payment, calculated whether our rent money would be better served as mortgage payments, and took the leap.  It was a building that had been abandoned and renovated, so there was no real estate tax for the first 10 years, and the developer seemed to be marketing the units toward teachers, artists and musicians.  We got the asking price for the ground-floor unit down from 107K to 105K, and after living on the 4th floor for 3 years, the ground floor was a welcome change.  

When the marriage ended and my wife moved out, I had to get her name off the mortgage and pay her 1/2 of our total investment to that point, or $5,000.00.  I did this by taking in a (very messy) roommate and putting his rent toward buying her share - it was the best money I ever spent.  Even though I had very little privacy (turns out people can see through your blinds if you live on the ground floor) and we were across the street from a homeless shelter, I lived there for 11 years, serving as Condo Board Treasurer 8 times.  That was a great experience in being part of a community, helping to run the building's finances and learning about building repairs and upkeep.  Plus, I got to see the asking prices whenever anyone would sell a unit, so I had a great grasp on how the Brooklyn real-estate market was doing. 

By 2004 I was married again, and we sort of outgrew the condo - it only had one bathroom, after all, and no parking spaces, and we'd accumulated so much stuff I had filled my basement storage space, and also I had a storage unit holding comic books and other things. When my wife learned what the condos were selling for, she pointed out how much profit we could make by selling the place, and I had to admit she was right.  Even though I probably had paid off only 1/5 of the mortgage, I ended up selling the condo for 4 times the original value, and we put that money into a house in Queens, buying 2/3 of it in cash and getting a mortgage for the rest.   So now I'm in a three-story house, which admittedly has its own problems with crazy plumbing and being drafty in the winter, but we've filled it with stuff and I have no plans to move anytime soon.  

But the real take-away here is that it's important for two people to share the same outlook on life, which is why I'm having such trouble with the new Late Late Show host, James Corden.  He's just too eager for my taste, too willing to laugh at his own jokes - hey, isn't that FUNNY, everybody?? - dare I say it, he's just too positive and upbeat.  He's a lot like Jane Fonda's character in this film - hey, we've got a telephone installed in the apartment!  I can call a number and hear the weather!  Isn't that GREAT? Hey, we've got a radiator!  Whoopee, I'll alert the media.

I'm really missing the sarcastic sensibilities of Craig Ferguson, who became more funny after he sort of gave up and stopped trying, and found his own rhythm that way.  That was what drew me to Dave Letterman and late-night TV in general, that sense of sarcasm and self-deprecation, and I'm really going to long for it when Dave retires.  But if I wanted to watch someone overly enthusiastic, I'd switch over to Jimmy Fallon - but I don't, and I just can't.  I'll give Corden another month or so, but if he doesn't learn to tone it down a bit, I'm gone.  

Also starring Jane Fonda (also carrying over from "The Chase"), Charles Boyer (last seen in "Gaslight"), Mildred Natwick (last seen in "The Trouble With Harry"), Herb Edelman (last seen in "California Suite"), and a cameo from Fritz Feld (last seen in "At the Circus") - playing a restaurant owner, of course.

RATING: 4 out of 10 wedding gifts

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Chase (1966)

Year 7, Day 107 - 4/17/15 - Movie #2,007

BEFORE: Marlon Brando carries over for his third film in a row, and the end of the Brando chain is also the start of a week-long chain featuring another prominent actor - the "Sundance Kid" himself.

THE PLOT:  The escape of Bubber Reeves from prison affects the inhabitants of a small Southern town. 

AFTER: Putting films in succession, more or less at random, sometimes creates some interesting contrast - but by comparing and contrasting, occasionally I gain some insight to the human condition, or perhaps the zeitgeist of the culture that created a particular film.  Such is the case when I compare "The Wild One" with "The Chase".  Both films have Marlon Brando as a central character, but in 1953's "The Wild One", he's a rebellious youth (OK, sort of, he was 39) and in 1965's "The Chase", he's a town sheriff.  He went from bucking authority to BEING the authority.  

It's also notable that in "The Wild One", a small California town is beset by rampaging bikers - but in 1965's "The Chase", a small town goes crazy after a man escapes from prison, and (presumably) heads back to the town he came from - vigilante justice, combined with a bunch of teenage townies with nothing better to do, leads to the same result, chaos in the town.  But in the first case, the chaos comes from an outside force, an uncontrollable gang - while in "The Chase", the danger comes from the townspeople themselves - we have met the enemy, and they are us.  

So, what changed between 1953 and 1965?  Why are townspeople portrayed as innocent in the earlier film, and corrupt and bloodthirsty in the later film?  Could be random, sure, but I'm going to point my finger squarely at events such as the Kennedy assassination, which also gets sort of visually checked at the end of this film in a way that I won't reveal.  But Brando's Sheriff Calder, after realizing his place as a puppet of the town oil-man/banker, Val Rogers, suddenly realizes that he doesn't want to be part of the problem any more, and actually cares about whether escaped convict Bubber Reeves can be caught alive and returned to prison safely.  This displays a distinct lack of faith in government institutions like courts and jails, an overall dissatisfaction or cynicism with the way the system works, or perhaps fails to.

I'm sort of simplifying the situation here, because it seems pretty complex, and there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered, like what was Bubber Reeve's original crime?  And was he guilty of that crime, or not?   And if he only had 1 year to go on his sentence, why did he escape prison?  And why is the film called "The Chase" if nobody ever chases anyone?  They just sort of stay in one place and wait for Bubber to show up - if he'd headed for Mexico, he might have made it.

There's also a lot going on in this small town, in that everyone seems to be sleeping with someone other than their wife or husband, or else they're sleeping with someone else's wife or husband.  So again, this symbolizes an overall dissatisfaction with the institution of marriage, which as we all know is the foundation of small-town life.  And if no one's really happy, why can't they take steps to make themselves happy?  Maybe that's what all the affairs do, in the end...

But in addition to being a town full of secrets and unanswered questions, it's also something of a powder-keg.  Once the public finds out that Bubber Reeves has escaped prison and might be heading home, they use this as a chance to gather in the town square, drink and socialize.  And when word gets out that he might be hiding in the junkyard, everyone drives over there to shout his name, sing protest songs and toss flares at a bunch of oil and gasoline-soaked junk piles.  Yeah, there's no way that can go south at all...

The most touching moment comes when Bubber is briefly reunited with his wife, and without any words exchanged at all, he figures out from the situation that she has emotionally moved on while he's been in jail.  If you pause the film at just the right second, I bet you can witness the moment when a man's heart breaks.  Bubber's a real trouper, though, and in the course of a minute he does several emotional reversals, to the point where he says he's OK with the new situation, when clearly he's anything but.  Love triangles have been a dime a dozen around here in the past few months, but no others have carried this much emotional heft. 

Also starring Robert Redford (last seen in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), Jane Fonda (last seen in "California Suite"), E.G. Marshall (last seen in "Interiors"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "Something to Talk About"), Angie Dickinson (last seen in "Sabrina"), James Fox (last seen in "The Remains of the Day"), Clifton James (last seen in "The Man With the Golden Gun"), Janice Rule, with a cameo from Paul Williams (last seen in "Smokey and the Bandit II")

RATING: 5 out of 10 junked cars  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Wild One

Year 7, Day 106 - 4/16/15 - Movie #2,006

BEFORE: Enough Shakespeare, let's move on to biker gangs.  Makes perfect sense, right?  I didn't watch "Sons of Anarchy", but from what I've read, the story arcs in that show were greatly influenced by the plot of "Hamlet", so a connection is not out of the question.  

Marlon Brando carries over from "Julius Caesar", and since he played such a wide variety of roles (no, that's not a fat joke) over the course of his enormous career (still not a fat joke) I'll treat this as just another chance to show off his extensive range.  (Still, nope.)

THE PLOT:  Two rival motorcycle gangs terrorize a small town after one of their leaders is thrown in jail.

AFTER: What's clear from the Marlon Brando films that I've seen is that he had such a commanding presence, whichever character he played became the biggest character on the screen (still not a fat joke).    Whether this is because he had a knack for playing the most influential character, or whether that character became influential because it was played by Brando, I can't say.  

His Marc Anthony character in "Julius Caesar" demonstrated violence in the form of revenge, but any violence here exhibited by his biker character, Johnny Strabler, is just for kicks.  He takes the form of a bully here, but something of a conflicted bully in turmoil.  Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, even the crown of a gang leader.  

These bikers are the kind that ride into town, annoy the townsfolk, and then prepare to fight back whenever the cops or decent folk try to get them to leave town.  The bully rulebook is perfectly represented here, many times I see people who are playing their car radios too loud, or taking up too much space on the subway seats, just waiting for someone to react, so they can escalate the situation even further.  It's best to just let these people be the annoying a-holes that they are, and not "poke the bear".  Discretion is the better part of valor, I've learned. 

It sort of seems like a part that James Dean would have been up for, but perhaps Dean was too busy moping his way through obscure television roles, and he didn't hit it big until "East of Eden", released two years after this film.  Besides, Dean would have been 22 at the time, and Brando was a ripe 39 - some would say too old to play a troubled biker, but maybe the fact that his character was aging out of the biker gang was one of his troubles.  The rest of Johnny's adult angst seems sort of undefined - someone asks him "What are you rebelling against?" and he replies, "Whadda you got?"

There's an odd relationship between Johnny and the waitress, Kathie - at first he wants nothing to do with her because her father's a cop, but that just makes her seem more unattainable, and perhaps therefore more forbidden, and ultimately attractive.  He saves her from a bunch of his own bikers who are circling her with their hogs in a symbolic sort of gang-rape, but when they go for a long ride together in the countryside, nothing seems to come of it.  Some people might point to this as evidence that Brando's character is gay, but I think it has more to do with the dynamic - suddenly she wasn't so unattainable any more, and thus she lost her appeal.  

I think Kathie went through something similar - as long as Johnny was hard, tough, and unreachable, he had some appeal.  But as soon as she started to break down his walls, she realized she couldn't turn him into the kind of man she needed, rather than the kind she wanted.  It's a strange dynamic, but it's better for Johnny than the relationship with the other girl, who just calls his name a lot.  "Johnny, Johnny" every 5 seconds, it would be enough to drive any man mad.  

Also starring Mary Murphy, Lee Marvin (last seen in "The Big Heat"), Robert Keith, Jay C. Flippen, Will Wright (last seen in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House"), Ray Teal, Peggy Maley, Hugh Sanders, John Brown, Robert Osterloh, William Vedder, Yvonne Doughty.

RATING: 4 out of 10 racing trophies

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Julius Caesar (1953)

Year 7, Day 105 - 4/15/15 - Movie #2,005

BEFORE: Quite a week it's been, with a phony dictator ("Duck Soup"), three princes ("Hamlet", "Henry V", and "The Prince and the Showgirl") and umm, whatever Othello was.  A general, I think?  This trend comes to its logical conclusion tonight with a film about a Roman emperor.

I could have sworn that I had a direct connection worked out between the Olivier films and this one, but now I can't find itDid I schedule this one next just because it comes from the same playwright?  That's pretty shaky, but I'm on the Bard track now, so I guess I'll just roll with it.  An indirect actor link is no problem - Olivier was also in "The Boys From Brazil" with James Mason (last seen in "North By Northwest"), who appears as Brutus in this film.  That will have to do here in Year 7, where a direct link between films is no longer a certainty.  

I missed the Ides of March, which was March 15 - the day that Caesar was, umm, removed from power.  (historical SPOILER ALERT)  If you don't know what happened to Julius Caesar, go read up on it and then meet me back here.  Anyway, today is the Ides of April, and that's going to have to suffice as well.  It's also tax day, when we "render unto Caesar" what is due.  I think that quote comes from the Bible and not Shakespeare, but to me it legitimizes scheduling this film today.  I mailed our returns in on Monday, if you're still doing yours today, I wish you luck.

THE PLOT:  The assassination of the would-be ruler of Rome at the hands of Brutus and company has tragic consequences for the idealist and the republic.

AFTER: Speaking of quotes, I think that "Julius Caesar" is one of Shakespeare's most quotable plays, perhaps 2nd only to "Hamlet" - which brought us such expressions as "Neither a borrower nor a lender be", "To thine own self be true", "Brevity is the soul of wit", and "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark", in addition, of course, to "To be or not to be" and "To sleep, perchance to dream..."  

But check these out: "The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves."  "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."  "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!"  "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."   All of those come from the play "Julius Caesar". 

And of course, there's "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."  This is spoken by Marc Anthony, who's played by Marlon Brando, who up to this point in his career was famous for mumbling his way through films like "A Streetcar Named Desire".  No doubt a few eyebrows were raised when he was cast in a Shakespeare adaptation - but his voice is very understandable here (so, why then all the mumbling in the other films...hmmm....)

Also surprising is how early Julius Caesar gets praised.  Umm, buried.  I mean killed.  It's like that would have made a logical ending for the film, but perhaps Shakespeare learned from plays like "Hamlet" that he shouldn't have all the action at the end of the film, so maybe he should move some of it up to the middle, like to Act III.  But I think what's most interesting about Caesar is not just how he died, but what happened after.  Eventually (another Historical SPOILER ALERT) he was replaced by a triumvirate, with Marc Anthony, Octavian, and Lepidus ruling together.  The second half of this play/film is devoted to the aftermath of Caesar's death, which really signaled the end of the Roman Republic, and the beginning of the Roman Empire.  So focusing on Caesar's death as a key moment in history is really an understatement.  

But what about today's audiences?  What can we learn from "Julius Caesar" that affects the modern world?  First off, don't trust anyone.  There's a lot of stabbing in this play, most of it real but some of it metaphorical - and stabbing used to be the universal symbol for betrayal, before we had buses and reality-show contestants to throw under them.  I've worked for over 20 years in animation studios, and I can tell you that business is as cutthroat as any other.  Your enemies might stab you in the back, while your friends should at least have the courtesy to look you in the face while they stab you in the front, and twist the knife in your gut.  Shakespeare got that 100% right with this play.  (I'm thinking about personal experiences, but also about a particular Oscar-winning animator who got "Julius Caesar"-ed out of his Portland studio by his own board of directors a few years back.)  I'm sorry if this sounds cynical, but I call 'em like I see 'em. 

Also, we're coming up on a new season of presidential politics - and by "season" I mean the 18 months between now and November 2016.  Remember that Caesar wasn't assassinated because of all the things that he DID for Rome, he was assassinated because of all the things he MIGHT do in the future, if he were inclined to be more ambitious.  The Roman senators couldn't take the chance that he'd become drunk with power, and become Emperor - which, in retrospect, is what he really became. 

Anyone who runs for President of the U.S. is going to be subject to the metaphorical swords of the media - one false slip or hint of scandal, and they'll be torn apart by media AND now social media as well.  Hilary Clinton's been in the race for about a week now, and with all the (real and/or perceived) skeletons in her closet, I'm amazed she's lasted this long.  Look at the candidates that got crucified in 2012 - Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann.  God, it was like some horrible version of "American Idol" where the worst contender got voted off every week, but the ones that remained weren't great either. 

So, bear this in mind - anyone who announces their Presidential campaign this early clearly WANTS to be President, and there's a school of logic that says that anyone who wants it that badly shouldn't get it.  I think the candidates are starting to figure this out, which is why a lot of them are getting really cagey about running, or sort of half-announcing but not really, or they say they're "testing the waters".  What this country really needs is someone qualified enough to do the job, but also smart enough to not want it.  I'll vote for the best candidate who agrees that he (or she) is needed, but he (or she) is not happy about that at all.  Good luck finding THAT person. 

Anyway, that's going to wrap up the Shakespeare portion of this month's proceedings, and just when I was starting to get used to hearing flowery speech in iambic pentameter, too.  Oh, well - more Brando tomorrow.
Also starring Marlon Brando (last seen in "Don Juan DeMarco"), John Gielgud (last seen in "Gandhi"), Louis Calhern (last seen in "Duck Soup"), Edmond O'Brien (last seen in "White Heat"), Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr (last seen in "Kiss Them For Me"), George Macready, Alan Napier (last seen in "Marnie"), Richard Hale (last seen in "Family Plot"), Michael Pate, Ian Wolfe (last seen in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House"), Douglas Dumbrille (last seen in "A Day at the Races").

RATING: 5 out of 10 togas, of course