Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Grant Mystique: Wings in the Dark

Wings In the Dark Title Card

By 1935, Cary Grant was becoming a headline attraction. His signature roles were still ahead of him, but he had enough box-office appeal that he was rarely very far down the cast list when he wasn't actually top-billed. He's second-billed in Wings in the Dark (1935, directed by James Flood) behind Myrna Loy, who was coming off the success of The Thin Man. This was the first of three films Grant made with Loy, the other two being the post-war sitcoms, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. Both of those films were made at the height of Grant's stardom, when he had become the archetype of the movie star. He was top-billed in both and they're both fondly remembered, but in truth, I like Wings in the Dark more than either of them. Bachelor and Mr. Blandings are both more tightly scripted, more lavishly budgeted, more concerned with realism, more conceived of as product. Don't get me wrong! I like them both. But they tend to make of Grant, the movie star, into a middle-class mediocrity. They attempt, at their peril, to make Grant relatable to the new, post-war middle class, to the average Joe who was moving to the suburbs on the GI Bill. In short, they tried to rob Grant of his movie-star mystique (and nevermind that knight in shining armor gag in Bachelor). Wings in the Dark is a much rougher film, not really more than a b-picture that would be forgotten if not for its stars. I'll agree that as a formal object, it's probably not as good as Bachelor or Mr. Blandings. In fact, it's utterly ridiculous. But unlike those films, it doesn't squander Grant's persona. Wings in the Dark lets Grant explore his role in a way that would be unthinkable once he became the archetype of the movie star. It's a film that lets Grant be an actor first.

Cary Grant in Wings in the DarkCary Grant in Wings in the Dark

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Short Update

James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro

Oh, hai. According to my analytics, there are still people coming to my blog every day, so I thought I'd stop in and let you all know what's going on with me and what's going on with Krell Laboratories. I mean, I haven't posted anything since January. February was the first month in over a decade with no postings at all. Given that I get paid when I post, this is a bad situation for me, but there are extenuating circumstances. One: I've been sick. I've had a nasty respiratory infection since the beginning of February and it's hard to work up the gumption to write anything when you're in the process of coughing up a lung. I joked on Facebook that I have consumption and that I should move to Tombstone, Arizona for the weather and take up card-playing, loose women, and absinthe. I frame everything in my life through cultural references, sometimes.

Moreover, I've been poor. This is related to being sick. I have only been able to work intermittently over the last month and a half and since I'm not working a full-time day job, it means I have no paid sick leave. I'm not in danger of losing my job, but every day I miss because I'm sick is a day I'm not making any money. I am being sensible and not spending my money on movies right now, preferring to spend it instead on my mortgage and food. And on days I am working, I am otherwise occupied. I have not seen Get Out or Logan or Kong of Skull Island or Hidden Figures or Arrival or Lion or a bunch of other films recently in theaters. I want to, but I'm probably waiting for video or streaming on most of it.

On a more personal note, I've been spending a lot of my available time on defending myself from the Trump government. I've been playing an intense version of the identity document whack-a-mole that all transgender people play if they transition as fully as I have. I've been engaging in a bunch of activism, too, which isn't exactly a new thing for me, only newly urgent. I've been trying very hard not to freak out and do something completely stupid like move to Argentina with no job or friends waiting for me. It's been stressful.

Finally, I've been...well, blocked I guess. I've started, literally, dozens of posts over the last year and a half that have died a quick death as I've run out of things to say or run out of words to say them. I wrote about my favorite film of last year--The Witch--when it was in theaters and that post was easy. Sometimes it just flows like I'm a conduit for words; its a form of automatic writing. I didn't write about my second favorite film of last year--Sing Street--because I couldn't find a way into it (you should see it, by the way; it's on Netflix). Ditto some of my other favorites from last year, whether Scorsese's Silence or Park's The Handmaiden or Moonlight or 20th Century Women or OJ: Made in America or Manchester by the Sea or most of the other films I submitted on my ballot for the Muriel awards. Do I want to engage with these films? Mostly yes. The words just haven't come. It's frustrating.

So I'm going to try something a little different now.

I was sitting on the couch watching Joe Dante's Explorers, a film I liked when I saw it in theaters all those years ago, when it struck me that Ethan Hawke is the perfect actor for Richard Linklater's Boyhood, because Hawke is one of those child actors you can watch grow up on camera. He was 13 when he filmed Explorers. Every subsequent film is like revisiting him to see how he's coming along, like he's participating in a strange version of the "Up" documentaries. And it's this way for all child actors who act into adulthood. When I started to think about this, I realized that Christina Ricci is likely fixed in the popular imagination forever and ever as Wednesday Addams, a part she first played when she was ten, and that no matter what she has done as an adult, that image will always follow her. There's a little bit of Wednesday in her version of Lizzie Borden, I think. She's 37 now, which makes me feel old. I remember seeing a rerun of one of Kurt Russell's first films, Follow Me Boys, at a drive-in double with Pollyanna sometime in the early seventies, a film made when Russell was a wee boy. He's an old man now. You can watch him age film by film. All of which is a reminder that even fictional films are documentaries of a sort. They capture a shadow out of time. They're a medium for making ghosts.

These are the kinds of things I think about when I'm alone in the house and stuck inside my own head for long periods.

Ordinarily, I'd be writing about The True/False film festival around now. The festival played this past weekend. I didn't get to go, even though I selected ten films to go with my pass. I gave my pass and my tickets to my partner so she could go see something. I stayed home and coughed all weekend. Woe is me. That said. I've seen a bunch of the films that played there. Of the films I saw before the festival, the ones I liked best were I Am Not Your Negro and Rat Movie. I Am Not Your Negro is a hit beyond the festival circuit and an Oscar nominee this year. It would have been my choice of the nominees, though any of them would have been an honorable choice for a change. I don't begrudge OJ: Made in America its win even though I think it's television and not cinema, but a masterpiece none the less. That boundary blurs more and more day by day anyway. Besides, taken as a triptych, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, and OJ are a powerful expression of why we are in the mess we're in in the United States, as if they were three parts of the same film. I Am Not Your Negro filters its view of race and America through the eyes of James Baldwin, who was clear eyed about his country, even as it murdered his friends. Rat Movie, a film about the history of rats and rat extermination throughout the history of Baltimore, is almost as racially charged. It's a mosaic film in which public health, neighborhood redlining, involuntary experimentation on minority populations, and rats themselves entwine into a damning critique of American racism. It's a bracing film.

Of this year's films, the one that's most typical of True/False's mission of examining the liminal space between truth and fiction is Kitty Green's Casting JonBenet, which examines the case through the eyes of actors auditioning for parts in a hypothetical film version. Each actor has a different take on the character for which they're auditioning, and each actor brings their own personality to the audition process, creating a weird metacinematic doorway between past and present. The end of the film, in which all of the actors appear during the filming of the fake film is a bravura piece of stagecraft. I don't think it sheds any light on the actual case, but that may be the point.

Anyway, I'll try not to stay away so long.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Grant Mystique: This is the Night

Roland Young, Cary Grant, and Thelma Todd in This is the Night (1932)

There are more films starring Cary Grant in my movie collection than films starring any other actor. No small feat given how many films I have with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Christopher Lee, respectively. I think John Wayne may have been in the lead until this Christmas, when my main Christmas gift was the Universal Vault Collection of Grant's early films, most of them from the pre-1950 Paramount library that Universal owns. They've been stingy with that library over the years. Many of the films in this set have never seen a commercial release for home video. In any event, this set has eighteen films, all made before 1935, before Grant was "Cary Grant," before he had fully developed the Grant persona (stolen from Leo McCarey on the set of The Awful Truth, if you believe McCarey on the matter). Grant's star became a supernova after 1937, when he began appearing in some of his best-loved films, including Topper and the aforementioned The Awful Truth. The films in The Vault Collection are not so well-known as a rule. Oh, it has the two films Grant made for Mae West, sure, and Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Von Sternberg, but those aren't really "Cary Grant" films, even if Mae West recognized a diamond in the rough when she saw one. West had an eye for diamonds.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Winter 2016: Jazz

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

On the evidence of Whiplash and La La Land (2016), director Damien Chazelle sure likes jazz. He likes it so much that he wants to save it from its death spiral, single-handedly if necessary. Maybe he'll succeed. I don't know. I wish he'd try harder to save it with actual black people, you know? The people who actually invented jazz? But, like it or not--and this film doesn't--black people have moved on to other forms of expression, leaving jazz to (mostly white) academics and nostalgics. I think Chazelle is an academic, however much he wants to express a visceral passion for jazz in his films. There's a scene in La La Land where he tries to convey what jazz has become versus what he thinks jazz ought to be when he has his hero, Sebastian, a jazz pianist, trying to mansplain why his heroine, Mia, an aspiring actress, should like jazz even after she's said she doesn't like it. This resonated in my head with some recent articles in Seattle's The Stranger about bands one woman pretended to like to impress boys and it dropped me out of the movie for few minutes, a discordance that echoed back later in the film where the filmmakers tip their hats to Vertigo, which similarly follows a man who wants to remake a woman. So, basically, the politics of images in La La Land are somewhat problematic.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Winter 2016: Nocturnal Ocean Beasts

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Here are some comments on some of the films I've been seeing this month. I don't have the heart or fortitude for my usual jeremiads right now, so these are brief.