Saturday, August 8, 2015

My Kid Could Paint That

Year 7, Day 220 - 8/8/15 - Movie #2,114

BEFORE: My extended foray into documentaries continues tonight, and I'm sticking with the topic of art.  Because why not make that a running theme for the year?  I'm still working out the chain that will follow the documentaries, the first two weeks are looking really solid, but after that, the linking sort of falls apart.  So I may end up moving a topic, such as time travel, into next year and bringing in some ringers from the bottom part of the list to plug up the resulting hole.  Stay tuned, it's going to take a few more days to figure all that out. 

THE PLOT:  A look at the work and surprising success of a four-year-old girl whose paintings have been compared to the likes of Picasso and have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

AFTER:  In many ways, this is the opposite film to "Tim's Vermeer", where an adult with a sizable income spent weeks making a very meticulous painting for very personal reasons.  Here we have a child with no income who could knock out an abstract painting in a few days, and they ended up being sold in galleries.  Naturally, this led to speculation over whether the world had found a true artistic genius, or whether a child was being exploited (by her parents, the gallery owner, the media...) for personal gain.  Yes, we live in a cynical world, but whose fault is that?  

What I've realized, after just two films, is what most documentaries have in common - in absence of a narrative, often they have to create their own. The film touches a bit on the nature of abstract art - how naturally subjective it all is, which naturally leads fans of traditional art to wonder if it's all bunk.  They said that about Jackson Pollock - geez, he's just a guy dripping paint on a canvas, isn't he? - and they've said that over the years about various attempts to have abstract paintings made by monkeys and elephants.  (Never try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.)  

Both "Tim's Vermeer" and this film happen to use the same song over the closing credits - Bob Dylan singing "When I Paint My Masterpiece".  In that song, following some questionable rhymes (girl from Greece, pack of wild geese, Botticelli's niece),  there are two lines that are the essence of creativity.  "Someday, everything's going to be different / When I paint my masterpiece."  Right there, that's the thought process that fuels every creative person - artist, writer, filmmaker - and keeps them doing what they're doing.  As soon as I find the right combination of words, images, brushstrokes, and I do the thing right, my whole life's going to change.  I'll finally get some recognition, some press, some money and I'll be able to improve my life in a neglible way.  

Now, I admire ambition in a creative person, but it's possible to be so focused on a goal that you miss out on the journey it took to get there.  Writing a successful book, directing a hit film, making a treasured painting - these are equivalent to hitting the lottery, and some people might win on their first ticket, some might win after 1,000 tickets, and most people will never win at all.  Logic says that if you hit the jackpot on your first ticket, you should stop playing, because you'll probably never win again - but that doesn't work for writers, filmmakers and artists.  Once you're in the game, you keep playing.  So if young Marla is really a painting prodigy, like Mozart was to music, then she's in it for life.  

But we have this thing now called the 24-hour news cycle, which survives on information but feasts on scandal - so naturally the questions arose about whether Marla was really painting, without a little help from her father.  All it took was a "60 Minutes" profile on Marla, with Charlie Rose questioning "What's really going on here?" and the damage was done.  And the footage they chose to air on CBS had Marla saying, "Now you do it, Daddy!" or her father saying, "Work on this part now, Marla" and of course, no one remembers the hours of footage that they DIDN'T air.  But that's how documentaries work, a director makes decisions about what story to tell by what gets left in and what gets left out.  

With Marla, what needed to be factored into the equation was the possibility that making a documentary is a bit like quantum physics - the act of observing has the possible effect of changing what is being observed.  So, according to Marla's parents, whenever she was being filmed, she painted in a different style, or she acted in different ways - and that's what led people to believe that someone else made her best paintings, her best work was always produced when there was no camera around.  The audience (or anyone buying her art) had to decide if they believed her story, as part of the package.  The parents did have success in filming her painting one complete work, "Ocean", but the skepticism still persisted.  Viewers of the film similarly now have to decide if they believe in the art's pedigree.

There's no debate about whether stage moms and dads benefit from the success of their kids - of course they do.  Even in animation I've seen so-called prodigies, 8 or 10-year old kids who want to make cartoons, and I question how much of that comes from them and how much from their momagers who want them to do something unique, which will look good on the college application.  Does that 8-year old kid REALLY want to make a cartoon film to explain the Holocaust?  That girl who's autistic, you're telling me that she was able to focus enough to make a stop-motion film, a process that would drive most adult animators batty?  

It must be tough to raise a kid, especially if you're prone to second guessing the results of every little action.  If I let him eat dessert, will he be obese as an adult?  If I don't discipline him enough, will he end up in prison?  You want to encourage your kids to pursue their passion, to even be good at something, whatever that is, but where do you draw the line between encouraging and nagging?  Even helping with math homework could easily lead to doing it FOR them, and then the kid is learning nothing.  That science project or soapbox derby racer sure could benefit from an adult with resources getting them what they need, and it's a slippery slope from there.  

When I was a kid, I was into jigsaw puzzles, crosswords and cartoons - and I did well in school, so my parents encouraged me to strive to get into the "gifted" programs, once I reached a grade level where those programs existed.  I had the scores, that wasn't a problem, because I always did well on standardized tests - but the problem was finding an interest in something that could be turned into a career someday.  (Vocabulary and math scores only get you so far.)  So I was signed up for summer courses at Framingham College that were geared toward junior high kids, in subjects like logic, chess, and radio broadcasting.  I still didn't know what career I wanted to pursue until I was about 15 or 16, and when my brain hit on film production, it all sort of came together, as a "why not?" kind of answer.  Filmmaking is logical, it's like a puzzle, it requires a lot of different skills, AND it's a form of art.  Then all I had to do was learn the techniques and find employment.  (Turns out there was a lot more to it than that, but I couldn't have foreseen it at the time.)  

As a coincidence, today I received in the mail the first art from my niece and nephew that I've deemed "fridge-worthy" - (I don't HAVE to like art done by kids, because I don't have kids) really, up until now their work has been quite what you'd expect from children, a lot of white space on the paper and some stick figures that are almost recognizable as Disney characters.  But this art was done to thank me for getting them trinkets from Comic-Con, so I got a drawing of Olaf the snowman from my niece, and of R2D2 and C3P0 from my nephew.  Finally, some art that speaks to me, and has some value.

Starring Marla Olmstead, Laura Olmstead, Mark Olmstead.  

RATING: 5 out of 10 nasty e-mails

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tim's Vermeer

Year 7, Day 219 - 8/7/15 - Movie #2,113

BEFORE: I've finally decided to cross some documentaries off my list - with my actor linking coming to an end, I could have just started a new chain, but I noticed that the last film in the chain was about art, and I also had some documentaries on that subject, so it seemed like a natural fit.  So I'm suspending linking for a little over a week and I'm lumping all of the documentaries together.  And the last doc in the chain will be on a particular subject matter, which will link thematically to a particular narrative film, and then I'm back on track.

However, at that point, I'll have just under 80 viewing slots left for the year - I've got a chain planned that I think will take me all the way to Movie #2,200 (Star Wars: Episode VII) but then the question becomes - is it the BEST chain?  There will be another linking break just before the Halloween films, can that be avoided if I change the list around?  Have there been new films added to the end of the list that link better to films now at the top of the list?  Are there films scheduled for 2015 that should be moved to 2016, either to create a better romance chain in February, or perhaps if I don't have enough romance films, to create a Black History chain?  I've got a couple films scheduled for 2015 about musicians, and some more on that topic for 2016, should they be moved together?  These are the things that keep me up nights.

Well, I've got a week to play around with the chain, the good news is, if I can't find a better order in that time, I'll just go with what I've got now, it's like a safety net.  No matter which 87 films I watch in the rest of 2015, I'll never be able to predict if the films I leave for next year can be organized into a coherent chain or not, because the list is always changing, films are always being added, so it's like trying to corral a herd of cats.  The good news is that my watchlist is now down to 140 films - so that's 87 for this year and 53 for next year, though I'm sure that latter number will increase.  

Anyway, about documentaries.  I'm not opposed to the form, it just seems like Hollywood's got an overwhelming bias toward big-budget narratives, and so that's mostly what I end up watching.  I won't say I've completely avoided them, since I've watched films like "Wordplay", "The King of Kong", "What Would Jesus Buy", "Religulous", "Knuckleball", "Freakonomics" and a few others.  But 18 films out of 2,112 is still very small, less than 1 percent.  I finally got to "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" about two years ago.  

I caught a couple of documentaries in the past year that I didn't even count - when I was sick a few months ago I watched most of that documentary about Billie Jean King, and I also felt compelled to check out most of that documentary about Scientology that was making the rounds.  I also watched "The Jinx", that docu series about Robert Durst, but since that was a cable series and not a stand-alone film, I didn't think it should count.  So I think it's long overdue that I get into some of these - I'm sure there are more than I can get to in a week's time, so maybe I'll have to do a follow-up week next year.

THE PLOT: Inventor Tim Jenison seeks to understand the painting techniques used by Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer.

AFTER: Tim Jenison is not a painter, that's a point that this film makes, again and again - but he did stumble upon an idea that gave him access to a painting technique that allowed him, with the use of a mirror, to reproduce a technique that Vermeer MIGHT have used to make his very lifelike paintings.  Maybe when you were a kid you made a crude pinhole camera with a shoebox, if you can imagine that shoebox large enough for an artist to stand in, that's a "camera obscura".  The theory would be that an artist could take advantage of the beams of light coming through a small hole into a dark room, which would project an image from outside that room on to one of its walls, albeit backwards and upside-down. 

Now, it just so happens that Vermeer's painting career coincided with the invention of the telescope, so there's a good chance he was aware of the use of lenses, and with the proper lens, one could use the camera obscura concept to create something akin to a focused image on that dark wall, and it would be almost like watching a movie on a screen in a dark theater (again, only upside-down).  By using a shaped lens, one can even invert the image so it's right-side up, and Jenison found that by using a small mirror over a blank canvas, he could position his head in a way that would allow him to match the darkness between the mirror image and the canvas, and making a thousand little miniscule comparative adjustments to the grayscale of the painted image, he could reproduce a black-and-white photo in paints, relatively well. 

But it's a large leap in logic to assume that because the results of his experiments worked so well, then Vermeer MUST have used this technique, or something like it, and managed to keep this technique secret from the world at large, especially other artists.  I don't know enough about art or artists to say that because Vermeer's work is so detailed, he MUST have been using this technique to reproduce the elements of a scene, as opposed to, say, viewing them or making them up in his brain. 

Jenison might be one of the few people in the world with the resources to build an exact replica of Vermeer's studio, and all of the elements within - or to have access to computer technology that can extrapolate the measurements of a room from a painting (we're assuming, here, that Vermeer managed to reproduce the room seen in "The Music Lesson" with no variance or artistic license...) and the ability to generate plans to design and fabricate everything seen within that frame, and have it positioned just so.  It must also be nice to be able to take over a year off from work to be able to design that room and paint its image on canvas.

I loved the sequences where you get to see the formation of the painting over time, these were quite artfully done, for lack of a better word.  But the daily interviews, and the amount of time spent watching Jenison do very meticulous painting strokes, are really tedious.  Jenison's not exactly the most dynamic personality on camera, and after he's spent over 100 days on the painting, it seems like talking about the painting is the last thing he wants to do.  He even admits that if they weren't making a film about the process, he would prefer to quit.  (Perhaps we can even see a little bit of insight into how painting might have helped to drive Van Gogh mad...)  I appreciate the feeling of being involved in a project that's gone on much longer than expected, but that's no reason to pass on the feelings of ennui and frustration to the viewers.  Who knows, perhaps when I watch my last movie, I'll break down in tears also. 

However, this depiction almost works against the case they're trying to prove - the process of duplicating a Vermeer takes so long, that it starts to feel doubtful that Vermeer would have spent as much time as Jenison on a single painting, when you have to figure that free-styling any small part of it would have been quicker, albeit less accurate.  (Vermeer had one advantage, he didn't have to duplicate another person's set-up, he just had to decorate his room, of course...)  And the argument for Jenison designing the room in this particular way seems almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you use computer software to measure a room from a painting, and then design a room to those specs, and then paint that room, well of COURSE you're going to get something that looks like Vermeer's painting, no? 

But if Jenison's correct, this changes what we think we know about painters - we always think of them like Van Gogh, standing outside in a field somewhere, hoping to capture the essence of a wheat field as it blows, or crows in flight.  Before photography came about, painting was the best way to capture a moment, but it could never get things 100% right - unless, of course, some other technology was being used as a sort of cheat.  After all, the human eye and the human brain have limitations when it comes to the colors we can see and the amount of detail we can process - but a camera does not, and neither does a projected image. 

Look, I love Penn & Teller - I'll watch just about any TV show or movie they're involved with, not counting "Sharknado 3" (what were they thinking?)  I worked on a documentary way back in 1991 that they recorded framing sequences for, and was thrilled to meet them.  This was when they lived and performed in NYC, before heading out to their long residency in Vegas.  (For a while, Penn and I attended some of the same parties, but I doubt he remembers me.)

But I'm going to have to fall back on some of the investigative techniques that they espoused in their cable series "Bullshit!" - just because you want something to be true, it doesn't mean that it is.  And as compelling as it seems, the lack of evidence for something can't be taken as evidence, not even as evidence of a cover-up or a kept secret.  The lack of evidence is just that - unfortunately, there's no way to 100% confirm that this is how Vermeer worked, but the painting that Tim ended up with certainly makes a compelling argument.   I'd hesitate before putting him through that process again, but I'd be curious to see if his technique would help him duplicate the work of any artist, or if there's a particular reason why it would only work with a Vermeer.  Unfortunately, this also seemed a lot like it might have been an experiment without any control element.

NITPICK POINT: If I'm going to get very technical here, the film states a couple times that Jenison "painted a Vermeer".  Even if Vermeer used this technique, though, and even if Jenison copied the scene exactly, from a language point of view, it's impossible for him to "paint a Vermeer" - only Vermeer can paint a Vermeer.  He can only paint a Jenison in the style of Vermeer - hey, don't blame me, blame the shortcomings of language.  Art historians could spend hours poring over Tim's painting, and they might even declare that it looks exactly like a Vermeer, but no one, upon learning its true parentage, would then go so far as to call it one.

Also starring Penn Jillette (last seen in "Fantasia 2000"), Teller (ditto), Martin Mull (last seen in "Mrs. Doubtfire"), Philip Steadman, David Hockney.

RATING: 5 out of 10 floor tiles

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lust For Life

Year 7, Day 218 - 8/6/15 - Movie #2,112

BEFORE: Everett Sloane, who played Rocky Graziano's boxing manager, carries over into today's film, where he plays "Dr. Gachet".  And that will bring my linking chain to an abrupt end, because I've got nowhere to go from here - no Kirk Douglas films, nothing.  But fear not, there is a plan - which I'll explain tomorrow.  I knew this break was coming, and I'll be taking a break from actors in general, as well as the narrative form.

THE PLOT:  The life of brilliant but tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh.

AFTER:  As a young student, all I really knew about Van Gogh was the fact that he was a painter, and that he cut off his own ear to give to a woman.  But that second story isn't really true - is it?  I mean, that was an urban legend, right?  What woman would be impressed by receiving a man's ear as a gift?  "Oh, Vincent, you shouldn't have.  No, really, you should NOT have done that."  Here she is, expecting a box of chocolates or maybe a piece of jewelry, and she unwraps a body part.  WTF?  

But let's back up a bit.  The film starts with Van Gogh's early career as a priest, catering to small mining town.  His father was a minister and he hoped to become one himself, so he studied theology, but failed his exams, leading the missionary school leaders to assign him to a post in a coal-mining district.  According to this film, he lived among the poor workers, sleeping on straw in a small hut, in order to better understand them and minister to them.  This got him in "Dutch" with the church leaders, who thought he shouldn't mix with his parishioners, and shouldn't dress like them or live like them.  This led him to reject organized religion, but not God in general.  I can get behind that as a philosophy.  

I noticed some similarities here to last night's film "Somebody Up There Likes Me", released the same year as this one, 1956.  Now, you might think that a biopic about a boxer and and artist would be quite different, but look at how Rocky Graziano failed out of school, took to crime, bailed out of the army, and finally fell backwards into boxing.  Van Gogh failed out of school, bailed out of religion, and then sort of fell backwards into painting.  There's a sort of common thread that runs through both stories. 

Vincent's brother, Theo, convinced him to contact a prominent Dutch artist, which led to Van Gogh attending art school (not depicted in this film, I'm sort of mixing the film story with real history) where he learned the basics of anatomy and perspective and such.  When Vincent moved to the countryside with his parents, this led to his first drawings, charcoal sketches of common men, people working in the fields.  While Degas was painting ballet dancers and Toulouse-Lautrec was in the nightclubs, Van Gogh was out in the fields, dressed like a shepherd and gaining an appreciation for landscapes of Belgium.  

This also led to him putting the moves on his recently-widowed cousin, who had an 8-year old son.  She rejected Vincent, and let's just say he didn't take that well.  This caused a rift in the family, to say the least, and Vincent was on the outs with his uncle AND his father, leading him to move to the Hague.  The film omits the time Vincent spent in a hospital, recovering from gonorrhea, but picks up with his domestic relationship with an alcoholic prostitute who had a young daughter.  These were the salad days, where Vincent was relatively happy and content, but his simple monastic life and devotion to painting supposedly drove her away.  (Right, because there were absolutely NO other issues in that relationship....)  

But then everything changed with the dawn of Impressionism - Monet, Renoir and Seurat were catching on in Paris (although their art was also presumably facing much resistance, from the uptight art community) and to me, the most fascinating part was seeing Van Gogh in Paris for the first time, caught up in this new world of art depicting feelings and emotions, not exactly depicting what the eye might see, but something more abstract.  Van Gogh meets Gauguin, he goes to an exhibition of Monet, he has a debate with Seurat over whether the use of color should be mathematical or not.  (How could Seurat paint an outdoor scene while remaining indoors?  Because he wasn't painting a real landscape.)  

Thus, Van Gogh is considered "Post-impressionist", according to general thought (and Wikipedia).  Meaning he saw what the impressionists were doing, considered it, and adapted their style into his - leading him to go out and paint landscapes and buildings, but he was then free to paint them not exactly as they appear - and that's how you get something like "Starry Night".  Once freed from the bonds of realism, Van Gogh could paint a night sky to show the way it made him feel. 

The only problem therefore being - Van Gogh had SOME kind of trouble, but we may never know exactly what it was.  Madness?  Loneliness?  Or did he just never get over his first cousin?  Was he tormented by guilt for not living up to his father's legacy, or was he just a typical struggling painter, whose true talent was not recognized during his lifetime?  Was there a medical reason for his seizures and hallucinations, or was it just the result of strong drink such as absinthe?  And did his painting help or hurt whatever condition he had?

And, if I'm reading between the lines here, is this film saying that Van Gogh was gay?  Sure, he lived with a female prostitute, but he also lived with Paul Gauguin, right?   They seemed to have sort of an "Odd Couple" situation - Gauguin was neat, Van Gogh was messy.  Van Gogh seems very happy when Gauguin moves in, even though they bicker over the rules of art - and during a notable sequence in the film, after Gauguin decides to move out, Van Gogh goes a little mad, and that's when he hacks off his own ear.  Now, obviously people in the 1880's didn't discuss things like sexual preference, and it was barely even referred to in 1956 when this film was made, so how much of this is historical fact, and how much of this comes from the director, Vincente Minnelli, who may have been married to Judy Garland and three other women, but was hardly closeted.  

Wikipedia supports the idea that Van Gogh cut off his ear after some tension between him and Gauguin, possibly over Gauguin's plan to leave, and after doing so, Vincent reportedly wrapped it in paper and delivered it to a brothel that he and Gauguin frequented.  So that's hardly a romantic gift, I'm thinking, unless Van Gogh wanted someone at the brothel to show it to Gauguin.  But since Van Gogh was in the middle of a psychotic episode, we may never know the full reason he sliced off his ear - in modern times he might have been diagnosed with body dysmorphic syndrome, or body integrity identity disorder, which is a mental illness where people feel the urge to remove healthy limbs in order to feel more "whole".  Some people just think that he cut off PART of his ear as he was attempting to slice his own throat - so was it a suicide attempt?

All that aside, what's genius here is the format of film - they show Van Gogh's finished paintings, full-screen, at key moments, and you really get to see how the events in his life, the places he went, influenced the paintings.  A painting made when he lived in The Hague, for example, looks quite different from one made when he lived in Paris, and then the ones made while living in Arles show further development of his style.  The only film I can think of that uses a similar motif would be  "Amadeus", when that film depicted events in Mozart's life reflected in the staging of his operas. 

Another device that the film used was the narration of Vincent's letters to his brother, Theo - but they chose to have read aloud in Theo's voice, and this was a bit confusing.  It's true that Vincent wrote many letters to Theo, and this is how we now know so much about his career - and sure, Theo would be reading the letters, and there's a good chance that he read them aloud, but wouldn't it have made more sense to have them read aloud in Vincent's voice?  This would follow cinematic convention more closely, and would have been less confusing. 

NITPICK POINT: Is his name pronounced "Van Go" or "Van Gock"??  The movie can't keep it straight, and characters say it both ways.  Consistency is key, you've got to pick one pronunciation and get all your actors on board with it. 

Also starring Kirk Douglas (last seen in "Spartacus"), Anthony Quinn (last seen in "A Walk in the Clouds"), James Donald (last seen in "The Bridge on the River Kwai"), Pamela Brown, Henry Daniell (last seen in "Holiday"), Madge Kennedy, Lionel Jeffries (last seen in "Stage Fright"), with cameos from Henry Corden (last seen in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), Len Lesser (also carrying over from "Somebody Up There Likes Me"), Marion Ross. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 sunflowers

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Year 7, Day 217 - 8/5/15 - Movie #2,111

BEFORE: See, I said there was one more boxing movie to get to, and here it is.  This was originally supposed to be in the chain a lot closer to the other boxing films, but a couple other Paul Newman films intervened.  This was necessary to maintain the link to tomorrow's film, which is on a completely different topic.  Paul Newman carries over from "Fat Man and Little Boy", for the final time in this chain.

THE PLOT:  Based on the life of middleweight boxing legend Rocky Graziano.

AFTER: We're going all the way back to 1956 tonight, this wasn't Paul Newman's first film, but it was darn close to it.  Originally, James Dean was supposed to star in this film, but he died in an auto accident in 1955.  (Most people would say "tragically died", but the extra word is unnecessary, since all deaths are tragic.  See, it goes without saying.)  But we do have the first screen appearances of Steve McQueen AND Robert Loggia - it's weird to see Loggia as a young(ish) man, I'm so used to seeing him older.

Many of the events here came straight from the real Thomas Barbella's life (why most people know him as "Rocky Graziano" is a key plot point, I won't spoil it all here) but this film was so influential to later boxing films.  How much of Stallone's Rocky Balboa character is cribbed from this earlier Rocky?  The street fighter with the troubled past, the slurred speech, the shy girlfriend - who'd have thought that Stallone's most famous performance owed so much to Paul Newman?

Graziano had early promise as a boxer, but his career couldn't really get off the ground, as he was in and out of various reform schools and then prisons.  Then along came World War II, but it turned out that Rocky wasn't much for discipline, whether that came from a teacher, a prison guard, or an army captain.  He went AWOL from the army, and when he started boxing again, that enabled the MP's to track him down, which meant a year in Leavenworth federal prison.  (Hmm, a year in prison or serving in World War II - as unpatriotic as it sounds, in that situation I'd seriously consider doing the a year you'd be an ex-con, but more likely to be alive.)

(Hey, wait, I feel like I've seen this story before - was this the inspiration for "Undisputed", too?)

Once released, it was back to boxing, but Graziano also had his troubles with the NY State Boxing Commission - basically, it seems like this guy had trouble following rules throughout his entire life. There's a good contrast here between Rocky and his father, who was also a boxer under the name "Fighting Nick Bob" (again, unnecessary wordage - you'd think that the "Fighting" part was a given).  Rocky's father gave up on boxing in order to have a family, and that led to a lifetime of regret - after all, there's nothing that says you can't be both a boxer and a father.  But it was a different time.

Graziano was known as an upset fighter, meaning that he won matches he wasn't "supposed" to win - his manager reportedly kept putting him up against better and better fighters, hoping that he'd be defeated, and therefore maybe consider the benefits of a proper training regimen.  But again, this guy and discipline just didn't mix well together.

Also starring Pier Angeli, Everett Sloane (last seen in "The Lady from Shanghai"), Eileen Heckart (last seen in "Bus Stop"), Robert Loggia (last seen in "Shrink"), Sal Mineo (last seen in "Rebel Without a Cause"), Harold J. Stone, Joseph Buloff, with cameos from Steve McQueen, Dean Jones, Len Lesser, Robert Duvall (last seen in "Gone in 60 Seconds"), Stanley Adams.

RATING: 5 out of 10 pints of maple walnut ice cream

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Fat Man and Little Boy

Year 7, Day 216 - 8/4/15 - Movie #2,110

BEFORE: PBS ran this film a couple of days ago, because this week marks the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - the actual date is August 6 (so I'm two days early, meaning I'm good at scheduling, but not THAT good).  And that's what I mean when I say that sometimes a new film just begs to be moved up to the top of the list, to mark a historical event, and to allow Paul Newman to carry over from "Nobody's Fool".

THE PLOT:  This film reenacts the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime project in New Mexico where the first atomic bombs were designed and built.

AFTER: I'm very conflicted after watching this film, though I'm sure that what I'm feeling is nothing compared to the moral conflicts people endured about the use of the atomic bomb in 1945.  I wasn't there, I don't really know the cultural atmosphere of the time, what it was that led people to make a series of decisions that led to the use of a weapon that killed over 200,000 people, many of whom were civilians.  Unless I miss my guess (and I'm honestly afraid to do a web search on this) the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare is the single deadliest event in history (not counting deaths from diseases like malaria, which take place over time).  70,000 people dead in 5 seconds, I can't even wrap my brain around it.  

But it happened.  The U.S. military did that - and someone had to make that decision, and someone had to approve it, and before that, someone had to think of the bomb, and some other people had to build it. This is a film about those people, and how they managed to live with themselves, and how they found a way to sleep at night.  Now, of course we were at war, and U.S. soldiers were being killed in the Pacific, so the main goal was to save lives - but to save lives by building a weapon that would kill even more lives, that's a moral dilemma that I can't imagine either.  

But, isn't that the essence of war?  OUR lives are more important than THEIR lives.  U.S. civilians needed to be protected, even if we had to kill Japanese civilians to do so.  That's the party line, of course, and history is written by the winners - and I was raised in America, and it was always "My country, right or wrong." (Actually at times it's seemed more like "My country, we're never wrong.")  But isn't dropping the bomb just one of many questionable decisions made during wartime?  What about trading bombs for hostages, like Iran-Contra?  What about torturing prisoners for information in the Middle East, or using phantom WMD's as a reason for invading Iraq?  What about the CIA funding Sandanistas or military coups in Central America?  

I'm sorry if this sounds un-American, I'm as patriotic as the next guy - but really, if you go back to the Revolutionary War, you'll find that stacking the deck and winning at all costs is as American as apple pie.  Didn't the Minutemen hide behind walls and rocks when they faced British soldiers, who just marched into battle to get shot?  It wasn't very sporting to hide in the trees, but it worked - and it set up this "get it done, no matter the cost" mentality that still survives today.  It's a straight line from there to holding prisoners at Guantanamo, and the line goes straight through the atomic bomb.  

I grew up in the culture of the Cold War, and we learned in school about the balance of power - we had nuclear weapons, sure, but we weren't going to use them.  And the Soviet Union had them, too, but that's OK, because as long as two entities had them, they'd keep each other in check.  OK, great, but then where do China, France, Israel fit into the mix?  It only would take one rogue nation to spark a war, and then the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction would kick in, and that's the end of everything.  So we children of the 80's learned that life is fragile, because it could all vanish in an instant.  And now the same arguments are coming up yet again, with this whole Iran thing.  (Umm, please, nobody tell them that there are atomic bomb schematics on Wikipedia...)

The film depicts many of the scientists at Los Alamos as being conflicted - some even signed a petition about the moral implications of the work they were doing.  This seems to have put them in a troublesome spot, would they be considered successful for completing their tasks, or is "successful" even the right word?  Would it have been better for them, or better for the world, if they had failed?  Even if they had tanked the project, pretended like the atomic bomb was impossible to build, would it mean that someone else would have invented it 10 or 20 years down the road?  

I'm fascinated by the mechanics of it all, and the film doesn't go into all the details about implosions and enriched uranium, but it's fascinating to see some of the thought process, where they started thinking about giant cannons and how thick the barrel would need to be, and how to get enough velocity to cause the necessary chain reaction, and how all of that logically led to a dropped bomb instead.  But I was thinking last night, since there was a thunderstorm as I was going to bed, about how consistent mankind has been about harnessing the forces of the universe in order to destroy his enemies.  "What's that, a rock?  What's this fire thing?  Can I use them to kill the bad people?  Great, I'm in."  And someone looked up at lightning and wondered, "How can I harness that power, and use it to kill the bad people?"  (Of course, we got electric lights and appliances out of that deal, but that was a bonus.) 

But the question still comes up - why was it necessary to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  According to this film, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that the war in the Pacific was winnable, and in fact Japan had offered to surrender, just not unconditionally.  Why wouldn't it have been enough to demonstrate that the U.S. had a bomb, and threaten to use it, but not really use it?  That's what got us through the 1980's and 1990's, after all - nuclear war as its own deterrent.  I think the film suggested that if the U.S. demonstrated the bomb, there wouldn't be enough material left for the actual bomb.  Hey, I'd be OK with that.  

So, in the end, I'm left wondering if this is even appropriate subject matter for a movie.  Sure, it's part of history and it helped end the war, but I'm wondering if the focus was aimed in the right direction.  The work done at the Manhattan Project was important, but I'm not so sure that it should be celebrated.

Also starring Dwight Schultz, John Cusack (last seen in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), Bonnie Bedelia (last seen in "Anywhere But Here"), Laura Dern (last seen in "Novocaine"), John C. McGinley (last seen in "Alex Cross"), Natasha Richardson (last seen in "Nell"), Ron Frazier, Ron Vawter, Michael Brockman, John Considine, Del Close, Allen Corduner, with cameos from Clark Gregg (last seen in "Mr. Popper's Penguins"), Mary Pat Gleason, Fred Dalton Thompson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 beryllium hemispheres

Monday, August 3, 2015

Nobody's Fool

Year 7, Day 215 - 8/3/15 - Movie #2,109

BEFORE: Paul Newman carries over, and sometimes I don't have to try very hard to find the links - this film popped up on premium cable again a month or two ago, and since I knew I had a couple of Paul Newman films coming up, it feels like it suggested itself for the list, and it knew right where to go.  Whether the film was correct about its own placement remains to be seen.

THE PLOT: While a ne'er-do-well approaching retirement age is pressing a worker's compensation suit for a bad knee, he secretly works for his nemesis, Carl, and flirts with Carl's young wife Toby. His long- forgotten son and family have moved back to town, so he faces unfamiliar family responsibilities.

AFTER: Well, this wasn't seasonally appropriate at all, as the film is set between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a town in upstate New York.  Jeez, I just passed on "8 Crazy Nights" last week, because we're nowhere near Hanukkah.  But thematically, maybe I'm on to something and I did watch this one at the right time - because again tonight we've got a father re-connecting with his adult son, and finding out that he's now a grandfather, and that sounds a lot like what happened to De Niro's character in "Grudge Match" last week.

Other than that, this film doesn't seem to be ABOUT much of anything - it's small-town life, after all.  People do odd construction jobs, they take care of small repairs, they play poker, they clear away snow.  Then, on Tuesdays....sorry, I seem to have dozed off for a second there, you really can't blame me.  Admittedly, when I was in my teens or twenties, this would have seemed like the most boring film of all time.  But I'm now 47 and I'm feeling every year of it, so maybe there's a little more appreciation for the things middle-age people do to pass the time.  

I have a few days to myself each week these days, and what do I do with that time?  Organize the comic book collection, go out to a cafĂ© for lunch, try to make a dent in the stack of crosswords from the Sunday paper, debate whether my movie watchlist needs to be re-ordered.  So I can't claim that my days off are very exciting, but then, I'm not trying turn them into a movie, now, am I?  So I guess I'm a bit stuck in the middle - I can understand where this film is coming from, but I can't really justify it as a narrative.  

I need more of a narrative than what constitutes someone else's day-to-day, because I don't think a film should seem as pointless as a life that seems to be going nowhere.  Or is that really the point, in the end?  I can't say as I know.  Maybe it is the little victories we get that make us content, that make life worth living, and maybe we need to stop and recognize them when we can, even if the little wins never add up to a big win.  

But I think I'm ready to be a cranky old person myself.  I've been on a couple of cruises - where my wife and I felt like we were the youngest couple on the ship, but I think it was good practice for later.  On a cruise ship you learn that being old is about going to buffet restaurants for lunch, and then dressing up for dinner, and letting people from other countries show you the sights and make you drinks - because if you've been working hard for a few decades, you've earned it.  Middle age is also about spoiling your nieces and nephews, looking in on relatives who are even older than yourself, and realizing you're in too much pain to do physical labor anymore.  Check, check, and check.  We even went out and played bingo a couple months ago, so damn it, I'm ready.  All I need now is to get me some Lipitor and to start complaining about how nothing in this city - the sports teams, the bars, anything to do with the government - is as good as it was thirty years ago.  Bring it on.

Also starring Bruce Willis (last seen in "Four Rooms"), Melanie Griffith (last seen in "Pacific Heights"), Jessica Tandy (last seen in "The Birds"), Dylan Walsh (last seen in "Congo"), Pruitt Taylor Vince (last seen in "Monster"), Josef Sommer, Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Patch Adams"), Philip Bosco (last seen in "My Best Friend's Wedding"), Catherine Dent, Margo Martindale (last seen in "Practical Magic"), Alice Drummond (last seen in "Eyewitness").

RATING: 4 out of 10 traffic violations  

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Year 7, Day 214 - 8/2/15 - Movie #2,108

BEFORE: Robert Wagner carries over from "Play it to the Bone", and it's going to take me a couple of days to link to that last boxing film, but this gives me a chance to drop in a few Paul Newman films.  I had a Robert Redford chain earlier this year, so it only seems fitting to have a couple of films starring his frequent co-star.  TCM ran this one last August, but I'm adding another Newman film that just ran last night, so the time a movie spends on my watchlist is now anywhere between two days and one year, depending on where it might fall in the chain. 

THE PLOT: Lew Harper, a cool private investigator, is hired by a wealthy California matron to locate her kidnapped husband.

AFTER:  Despite the difference in decade, I can't help but notice the similarities between this film and the current season of "True Detective", which also used the disappearance of a man as a jumping-off point.  Both stories feature complicated plots and tricky motives, and both cases involve illegal immigrants, new-age religious cult leaders, a detective with an estranged wife and seedy clubs with horrible live music acts.  I guess that's California for you, whether you're talking about the 1960's or the 2010's.  The only thing missing here was the HBO series' focus on California land deals for a rail system, but honestly that's one of the more boring aspects of "True Detective" this season, am I right?  

Actually, a lot of things here were meant to pay tribute to the detective films of the 1940's, particularly "The Big Sleep".  This is based on a novel by Ross MacDonald titled "The Moving Target", in which the detective's name is Lew Archer, not Lew Harper.  But you can see the nods to Bogart films, like in the casting of Lauren Bacall as the wife who reports her husband as missing.  I guess a detective story is a detective story, no matter the decade.  I recently picked up two other films from the late 60's/early 70's that seem to pay similar homage, "Marlowe" and "The Long Goodbye".  

But Harper himself doesn't seem much like the Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe type - in fact, he reminded me more of Chevy Chase's wisecracking Fletch character, though a less comedic version, since he slipped easily into phony voices or whatever aliases he needed to get information out of someone.  So overall, this was like Fletch appearing in "True Detective", season two, and that just seems a little odd.

Plus, it's a really complicated case ("lots of ins and outs, man," as Lebowski would say).  Even after everything was revealed about who kidnapped Ralph Samson, I could tell you who but I really didn't understand why.  Plus they pull a freeze-frame ending at the worst possible time, so there's a huge unresolved thingie.  (It's funny, "True Detective" also got slammed this season for having a freeze-frame ending in one episode.)

Gotta go, the penultimate episode of "True Detective" is on in just 10 hours, and I've got to prepare by re-reading my notes from last episode.  Honestly, the show's been moving at a snail's pace, with one or two notable exceptions, so I'm really not sure they're going to be able to tie things together with the time they have left.  If they manage to do it, that will be quite an accomplishment.  Hmm, if this film was really the inspiration for Season 2 of "T.D.", and I make some quick assumptions based on the plot of "Harper", then that means the killer is...Wow, I really did not see that one coming, and that character was right there all along, hiding in plain sight.  Holy crap.

Also starring Paul Newman (last seen in "Torn Curtain"), Lauren Bacall (last seen in "How to Marry a Millionaire"), Arthur Hill (last seen in "I Was a Male War Bride"), Julie Harris, Janet Leigh (last seen in "Psycho"), Robert Webber (last seen in "Midway"), Shelley Winters (last seen in "Cover Girl"), Harold Gould (last seen in "Patch Adams"), Strother Martin, Pamela Tiffin.

RATING: 4 out of 10 broken yolks