No. 64 | March 31, 2010
Our theme this week
Films named after U.S. cities
Claim to Fame: Inspiration for the Monopoly board game; gambling Mecca of the East
Release Date: 1980
Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid
Oscar Summary: 5 nominations, no wins
Atlantic City was going through a transformation around the time of this film. A seaside resort town going back to the 19th century, it had suffered a major decline during the postwar years. Gambling was legalized during the ’70s in an effort to attract new visitors, and many of the old buildings were being demolished as new casinos were starting up.
Sally and Lou are neighbors living in an apartment building that’s slated for the wrecking ball. Sally’s a newcomer to town, from Canada, fleeing her drug dealer husband, with ambitions to start over. Lou’s an old-timer, an aging numbers runner with connections to the mob from decades past, yet a very dignified man with a fondness for white suits. The leads are Susan Sarandon (a revelation) and Burt Lancaster (one of a kind), perhaps an unlikely pair for two people so involved with each another and potentially lovers. They may be from worlds apart but they need each other, and there’s great tenderness between them. One memorable scene has Sally going through her nightly ritual at the kitchen sink, rubbing lemon juice over her arms, shoulders, and breasts. She does it to remove the smell of fish from her work as a waitress, though there is another way to look at it too. Lou is watching through the window. Later he tells her about it. It’s a revealing look into their characters.
Atlantic City was directed by Louis Malle, who made terrific films both in his native France (Lacombe Lucien, Au Revoir les Enfants) and in America (My Dinner with Andre). Atlantic City is a special film and ranks among his best.
No. 63 | March 30, 2010
Our theme this week
Films named after U.S. cities
Named For: Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash
Nickname: Music City, U.S.A.; Athens of the South; Ca$hville
Release Date: 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: A large ensemble, including Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin, Keenan Wynn
Oscar Summary: 5 nominations, 1 win
Since the time of the Greeks, the predominant form of storytelling has a protagonist and antagonist who steer the narrative with a supporting group of characters serving the main plot, sometimes with a subplot or two. The longer the story, the more opportunity to flesh out secondary roles, but it’s usually still clear who the primary character is. Recent times have seen more experimentation in narrative forms, but for many years that’s how it seems to have worked best—for storytellers and for audiences.
Robert Altman is an exception. His films ignore the standard “rules.” His signature style is a large cast of characters engaged in multiple storylines, whose lives intersect in unexpected, often circumstantial, ways. Altman seems less interested in plot than character, less interested in what happens than in who’s doing it and why. It’s a delicate balance. Lacking a single defining character, a story may come off as a muddle. But when it’s done well, the effect can be more like real life than any plot-driven tale, and the whole can have a greater impact than the sum of its parts.
Altman employed multiple storylines in a number of films (see Short Cuts, The Player), but his greatest success may have been Nashville. A couple of dozen characters have a role in the grand affair—people with flaws, people you can laugh at, but not without sympathy. The setting, of course, is Nashville, the capital of country music, where they all congregate, many of them looking for a break, or looking for love, or looking to promote their political ambitions. There’s much singing, and shenanigans, even some violence. It’s an Altmanesque look at the heart of America, on the eve of the Bicentennial. A song during the opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film: “We may have had our ups and downs / Our times of trials and fears / But we must be doin’ somethin’ right / To last 200 years.”
It’s a difficult film to define. It’s a comedy, it’s a satire, it’s a musical. At times it feels like a docudrama. It’s probably easier to say it this way: It’s Altman, at his best.
No. 62 | March 29, 2010
Movies are always about people. Sometimes they tell you who it’s about right in the title—e.g., Precious, Annie Hall, Forrest Gump. Sometimes the title is the name of a place—Key Largo, Chinatown, Moon. In that case, you don’t expect a travelogue but a movie about people who lived there or went there at a certain time. Usually that’s how it works, though there are exceptions.
This week’s films are movies named for a familiar type of place, a city. Sometimes the connection between the city and the story is historical, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes something else. At times that connection is clear, and at times—when we get to the Coen brothers—not.
MAD About Movies is still suffering jet lag from its recent world tour (see our visits to England and Japan), so this time let’s stick to cities on the U.S. map (sorry, Casablanca fans, some other time). There is one other distinction that the five movies for this week share. More about that on Friday; meanwhile you’re welcome to guess what it is.
Our theme this week
Films named for U.S. cities
Named For: St. Francis of Assisi
Nickname: The City by the Bay; Baghdad by the Bay (don’t call it “Frisco”)
Release Date: 1936
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Cast: Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy
Oscar Summary: 6 nominations, 1 win
San Francisco is the earliest and probably the least known of this week’s films. Stars Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy appeared in many other films we’re more likely to remember. Jeanette MacDonald is better known for her films with singing partner Nelson Eddy. (She went on to have an opera career as a soprano; he was a baritone in opera before his film work.) But San Francisco was a big hit in its day. It was the top-grossing movie of the year, making millions of dollars for MGM.
San Francisco is an early disaster flick, set in 1906, that eventful year when the city was devastated by an earthquake. As Jack London put it: “Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone.” The disaster scenes are not as amped-up as in later Hollywood spectaculars, but they are very well done; there’s a reality to the collapsing buildings and frightened crowds that we typically don’t see with movies of today that rely heavily on CGI and other special effects.
Gable stars as Blackie Norton, a roguish Barbary Coast saloonkeeper, who hires, falls for, and fears losing, singer Mary Blake, played by MacDonald. One highlight is MacDonald’s version of the title song “San Francisco,” which (among other renditions) wins top prize at the Chicken’s Ball, right before the shaking starts. The song was a hit, popularized later by Judy Garland, and today is an anthem of sorts for San Franciscans.
San Francisco, open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door.
San Francisco, here is your wanderin’ one
Saying “I’ll wander no more.”
There’s more Hollywood hokum than history in the final scenes, an uplifting ending that appealed to audiences three decades after the real-life disaster. It makes me wonder how the movies will handle the disasters of the past decade—9/11 and Katrina—after another generation goes by. It’s hard to imagine they’ll get the same treatment.
This ending, fading to a long shot of the rebuilt city, was used for the 1948 re-release. The original 1936 ending had shots of street life and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. MGM thought the ’30s version looked dated, so they changed it.
No. 61 | March 26, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Films of Akira Kurosawa
Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.
Akira Kurosawa adapts a parable of feudal Japan, Lord Mori’s lesson of the three arrows, along with Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, for this story set in the 16th century. Aging warlord Hidetora Ichimonji intends to divide his kingdom among his three sons. Betrayal begets revenge, as the family is consumed in an epic and tragic battle for succession. Ran is Japanese for chaos or rebellion.
Views & reaction
The film’s physical spectacle is astonishingly fine, the battle scenes so well integrated into the strong, inevitable story line that they never seem to become arbitrary set pieces—specialty numbers—the work of second-unit directors who know more about horses than actors. It’s also meant as praise when I say that Ran is very much an old man’s movie—Kurosawa is seventy-five years old…. Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion.
Ran…is a film that couldn’t possibly have been made at any earlier period in this great director’s career.
—The New York Times, 1985
One of the early reviews of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran said that he could not possibly have directed it at an earlier age. My first impression was to question that act of critical omnipotence. Who is to say Kurosawa couldn’t have made this film at fifty or sixty, instead of at seventy-five, as he has? But then I thought longer about Ran, which is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and on a similar medieval samurai legend. And I thought about Laurence Olivier’s Lear and about the Lear I recently saw starring Douglas Campbell and I realized that age is probably a prerequisite to fully understanding this character. Dustin Hoffman might be able to play Willy Loman by aging himself with makeup, but he will have to wait another twenty years to play Lear….
Ran is a great, glorious achievement. Kurosawa must often have associated himself with the old lord as he tried to put this film together, but in the end he has triumphed, and the image I have of him, at seventy-five, is of three arrows bundled together.
—The Chicago Sun-Times, 1985
In old age, Akira Kurosawa seems to have moved into a timeless realm of his own where his samurai dramas ask the big questions that no one else even dares contemplate any more; he seems to walk with Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists, not mere 20th-century moviemakers….
Akira Kurosawa’s recasting of King Lear as a struggle between an old shogun and three samurai sons, the main troublemaker egged on Macbeth-like by his power-mad wife (Mieko Harada, in a tour-de-force performance). A dazzling fusion of brilliant color and overwhelming drama, filmed with imperial command of the art form by a great director as the summation of his work—and perhaps the one lasting masterpiece of recent years.
—The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards, 1996 (on Kagemusha and Ran)
2. For these films directed by Akira Kurosawa, name two of the three that did not star Toshiro Mifune.
a. Drunken Angel
c. Ikiru (To Live)
d. Seven Samurai
e. Throne of Blood
g. Dersu Uzala
3. For the eight painters listed below, name the actors who portrayed them on the big screen.
a. Vincent van Gogh
b. Pablo Picasso
c. Jackson Pollock
d. Rembrandt van Rijn
e. Michelangelo Buonarroti
f. Andy Warhol
g. Diego Rivera
h. Paul Gauguin
Actors: Alfred Molina, Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Quinn, Charles Laughton, Charlton Heston, Ed Harris, Jared Harris, Kirk Douglas
4. For the four baseball movies below, select the following four: director, actor, player, team nickname.
a. Bull Durham
b. The Natural
c. Eight Men Out
d. Bang the Drum Slowly
Directors: Barry Levinson, John Sayles, John D. Hancock, Ron Shelton
Actors: D.B. Sweeney, Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford
Players: Roy Hobbs, Crash Davis, Bruce Pearson, Joe Jackson
Team Nicknames: White Sox, Mammoths, Bulls, Knights
5. Rearrange the letters in the names below to form the names of five Best Actress winners from the past decade.
a. Linda I. McKeon
b. Caroline H. Hertz
c. Sarah Winkly
d. Rene H. Milner
e. Carol Buskland
No. 60 | March 25, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Films of Akira Kurosawa
I’ll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die.
Sanjuro is a vagrant ronin (mercenary samurai) who visits a small town in 19th-century Japan. Competing crime lords battle for control of the town, and Sanjuro offers his services as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for the side that makes the better offer. Through political jockeying and deft use of his sword—a lot of dead bodies later—Sanjuro brings peace to the town. The film borrows from American westerns (and was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars) and also transposes plot elements from the Dashiell Hammett novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key.
Views & reaction
Yojimbo is not a film that needs much critical analysis; its boisterous power and good spirits are right there on the surface. Lechery, avarice, cowardice, animality, are rendered by fire; they become joy in life, in even the lowest forms of human life. (Kurosawa’s grotesque variants of the John Ford stock company include a giant—a bit mentally retarded, perhaps.) The whimpering, maimed and cringing are so vivid they seem joyful; what in life might be pathetic, loathsome, offensive is made comic and beautiful. Kurosawa makes us accept even the most brutish of his creatures as more alive than the man who doesn’t yield to temptation. There is so much displacement that we don’t have time or inclination to ask why we are enjoying the action; we respond kinesthetically. It’s hard to believe that others don’t share this response. Still, I should remember Bosley Crowther with his “the dramatic penetratioin is not deep, and the plot complications are many and hard to follow in Japanese.” And John Macdonald, who writes, “It is a dark, neurotic, claustrophobic film…” and, “The Japanese have long been noted for their clever mimicry of the West. Yojimbo in the cinematic equivalent of their ten-cent ball-point pens and their ninety-eight-cent mini-cameras. But one expects more of Kurosawa.”
More? Kurosawa, one of the few great new masters of the medium, has had one weakness: he has often failed to find themes that were commensurate with the surge and energy of his images…. Now, in Yojimbo, Kurosawa has made a farce of force. And now that he has done it, we can remember how good his comic scenes always were and that he frequently tended toward parody.
—KPFA broadcast, 1962 / Partisan Review, 1963; from For Keeps, 1994
Yojimbo does not cause viewers to ponder deep issues in the way Rashomon does, nor does it possess the epic grandness of The Seven Samurai, yet it must still be considered in the top tier of Kurosawa’s films. Stylish, compelling, and involving, it became as much a blueprint for future productions as it is an homage to past ones. And, in Mifune’s Sanjuro, we have an unforgettable protagonist—a super-samurai who, by the sheer force of his presence, elevates this movie to a level of greatness. Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” a character whose influence has stretched far and wide over the past four decades, is a direct descendent of Sanjuro. It is fair to say that, without Yojimbo, certain key aspects of Western cinema would not be the same today.