Sunday, February 19, 2012

Brief Thoughts on Inception

Finally watched Christopher Nolan's Inception last night after only, y'know, about two years since it came out. And as my dad said afterward, "Just because a plot gets more and more complicated as it goes along doesn't automatically make it mind-blowing." Have to say I agree.

Not that it wasn't an effective movie. The performances were all quite good, the score was unique and powerful for all its pounding insistency, and yeah, the special effects were amazing--but we've come to the point in moviemaking where I, at least, am not that bowled over by amazing special effects anymore. Compared to the days of stop-animation and the hyper-stylized architecture of expressionism, computers make something like floating around a hotel room and skyscrapers disobeying the laws of physics fairly easy to accomplish.

But it's really that plot that gets me. Man. Frankly, the greatest stories are those with simple foundations, where the twists and turns don't grow from twists and turns already embedded in the storyline. By the time the movie was over, I felt far more exhausted than impressed. Maybe my brain was just too feeble to properly appreciate the profound beauty of it all, or something. But Nolan kept the pace so bullet-fast, which admittedly made the 2 hours and something minutes go by relatively quickly and also captured that skitterish free-falling nature we sometimes have in dreams, but it lacked that opposite feeling we sometimes experience in dreams--something almost primitive and deep, where time doesn't exist at all.

Nolan tries for that eerie sensation in the scenes with Mal and Cobb, but here the quick pace works against him, since we never for one moment feel like the subconscious is stretching out to a blissful 50 years--a period of time that some film-makers like Wim Wenders can indeed capture (not that I'm a huge fan of it when Wenders does it). Instead, the pacing in Inception reduces these flashbacks to nothing more in our imagination than what we see onscreen, which is Leonardo DiCaprio quickly telling Ellen Page about it while some special effects rapidly fill in his and Mal's world for us while he talks.

And Nolan is also a little too much in love with the plot at expense of the characters. Despite the good performances, we're so constantly having the plot explained to us that even Cobb's tragic past with Mal isn't enough to make him or anyone else all that likable or relatable. That might not always be necessary in an action film of this nature, but if making the characters recognizable human beings wasn't Nolan's intention, why add Mal at all? Her scenes certainly tugged at the heart-strings, but never enough to make us forget that Cobb's ensemble is doing some pretty shallow, messed up things to poor Fischer. Thus I ended up dismissing the Cobbs as pretty self-centered, delusional people, even outside Mal's madness. Certainly Nolan was trying to paint them both as flawed, but his attempt to make them redeemable through their great love for each other never really struck home with me.

Maybe that's what the ambiguous, "is it all a dream" ending was for--perhaps Cobb doesn't get off scot-free after duping a grieving man with only the assurance from a robber baron that it was "the right thing to do." And hell, maybe Cobb deserves to be trapped in a phony paradise of his own making. But again, by the end, all the effort I put into pretending I knew what was going on in the ever-expanding, ever-verbose plot sapped me of any interest in his character, or anyone else's.

Was it a bad movie? No, not really. Inception was competently made, acted, and slickly stylish. But its ludicrous self-seriousness never hit me in that internal, nightmarish place where many film-goers long to be hit when watching material like this.

But man, I really did like that score.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unsung Movie Star Romances

Ick, Valentine's Day, am I right? Aside from the potential for candy, it's an icky, icky holiday. Love. Gross.

Once again, classic cinema in all its shiny glory makes love and romance so much more appealing than in reality. No saliva or holding back bodily functions for dear life up on the silver screen! 

As for real-life movie star love stories, lots has deservedly been said of Gable and Lombard, Olivier and Leigh, Burton and Taylor, Sinatra and Gardner, Newman and Woodward, Harpo and that picture of a horse he carries around in Animal Crackers. 

However, there are two great tear-jerk romances in celebrity history that always gut me but don't seem to be talked about that much. 

The first is Charles Boyer and Pat Paterson.

It was the classic opposites attract situation, apparently. He was the rising star with a liquid French accent and brooding eyes; she a tiny, piquant B-Movie actress. In private life, he was withdrawn and bookish, she sociable and energetic. "British, self-deprecating, and merry, the vivacious Paterson offered the stick-in-the-mud Boyer a contrast of mood and a stable home environment" is the way Dan Callahan at Bright Lights Film Journal puts it. They met at one of the reserved Boyer's rare appearances at a Hollywood party in the early 1930s, and married a few weeks later in 1934. 

Boyer, though known onscreen as that vaguely sinister lover who inspired Pepe Le Pew's amorous antics, became better known among his co-workers as one of those rare monogamous husbands, preferring a quiet night in with his Pat to wild drug orgies with Buddy Ebsen and Margaret Hamilton (neither of those actors actually took part in any drug orgy that I'm aware of. I just thought it would be gross and hilarious to have their names and "drug orgies" in the same sentence).

Boyer and Paterson's relationship was a happy, functioning marriage until a true tragedy struck them in 1965. Their son Michael, who apparently inherited the volatile passionate streak that Boyer projected on camera, took his own life in a game of Russian Roulette after his fiancee left him. The death of their only child predictably shook the heartbroken parents, and though their love for each other never waned as sadly often happens in relationships where children are lost, they never again had that easygoing gaiety that made their marriage so delightful. Callahan quotes one of her friends as saying, "Pat, who was always winking and beaming and laughing, and flashing those pretty teeth. Now years could pass and she wouldn't smile." She became as naturally withdrawn as her husband, and through their mutual tragedy they probably grew even closer.

Then in the late '70s Pat became terminally ill with cancer. Boyer acted the chivalrous cavalier up to the end. He told her doctor never to let her know how seriously she was ill, and never let on himself, joking with her and pampering her on her deathbed. When she passed away in 1978, he quietly and calmly saw to the details of her funeral, contacting the necessary people, all the while genial and collected.

Then two days later he killed himself, overdosing on barbituates.

Many actors will laugh off their screen image, saying something along the lines of, "Everyone wishes they were Cary Grant. I wish I was Cary Grant." But more often than not, you get the impression that if an actor is inspiring and convincing enough in a consistent character type, well, maybe there's some truth there after all. Boyer was no Lothario in the traditional sense depicted in many of his movies, but his devotion to Pat and final desperate act speaks volumes about the rich, deep passion he had.

Less overtly tragic but still deeply sad and bittersweet is the relationship between Peter Cushing and Violet Helene Beck, known as Helen.

Married from 1943 until, again, her death in 1971, theirs was a remarkably beautiful, spiritual love. They met while Cushing was still a struggling actor on the London stage and was called in as a replacement for another actor. Beck, one of the cast members, recalled "a vision...I had never met him, yet I knew, deep in my deepest heart, we had been together before...and when he bent over one of [my hands] to kiss it, a faint and quite delightful waft of tobacco and lavender-water hung upon the air. I knew I would love him for the rest of my days--and beyond." (Remembering Helen)

Cushing, too, later spoke of that eerie sensation of feeling like he'd met her before, and was equally and immediately convinced as she that he loved her, and would always love her. From that moment on they were inseparable. Working his way up the stage ladder to movies, Cushing always had Helen by his side, encouraging and coaching him, helping him memorize lines and prepare for his various characters. "I owe it all to Helen. She was an actress and gave up her career for me. She made me what I am. She gave me a confidence I could never have found on my own" (Planet Paul). But the relationship was not a one-way street. Foreshadowing her fatal illness many years later, Beck was always of fragile health throughout their marriage, and Cushing (like Boyer with Pat) would be right there tending to her cheerfully through numerous bed-ridden days.

But their luck ran out in 1971, when Beck succumbed to emphysema, Peter by her side. So mad with grief was he that he confessed later to running up and down the stairs that night, trying to induce a heart attack. He was stopped from following Boyer's path of suicide only by a letter he found that Helen had written him before she died, telling him to keep on living and assuring him they would meet again when the time was right.

And so Cushing continued. He acted for many years to come, including his infamous role as one of the baddies in Star Wars. But still, until his death in 1994, he never felt complete again, and claimed he truly died with Helen.

Unlike Boyer, Cushing never exactly projected the romantic in his numerous Hammer and horror roles. Yet just like Boyer's passionate streak was obvious onscreen, there was always a delicate gentleness to Cushing's work, a gentleness and tenderness that obviously existed in his own character when you read what he had to say about his beloved wife:

"Since Helen passed on I can't find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable, and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be united again some day. To join Helen is my only ambition. You have my permission to publish that...really, you know, dear boy, it's all just killing time. Please say that." (Radio Times 1972, IMDb)


Well. Now that I've thoroughly depressed myself (and if I'm lucky, you, dear reader!), why don't we cheer things up with my favorite HAPPY love scene of all time? The movie is The Right Stuff, and the scene where John Glenn's wife Annie refuses to meet with Vice-President Lyndon Johnson on TV after her husband's launch in the spacecraft is cancelled--because she's nervous about her stutter. Johnson, enraged, gets them to "turn up the juice" on Glenn to talk his wife into playing ball. Johnson is head of the space program, after all, and Glenn is a highly patriotic man who looks up to his superiors and follows orders. So this is what he tells his rebellious wife, starting at 22:54--

Both John and Annie Glenn are still alive, by the way! And still married! And in love! And her stutter has improved! See? My blog can be a fun place to hang out!

Monday, February 6, 2012

One More Classic Film Survey Never Hurt Nobody

Thank Internet for fellow bloggers who pull you out of writer's block with their addictive surveys. This one is brought to you by the lovely Rianna at Frankly, My Dear. I was going to post this before the weekend, but then moving and superbowling and sleeping happened instead. So nothin' like a Monday afternoon meme, amiright?

1. Favorite classic Disney?
Jungle Book counts as classic, right? 1967 isn't pushing it, is it? Art, story, characters, songs--Disney at its best and most frankly fun. I want to join Colonel Hahti's regiment.

Imperialism is fun when it's represented by elephants!

Runners-up are Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty. Dogs eating spaghetti and dresses changing colors from blue to pink are some of my favorite things.

2. Favorite film from the year 1939?
Man, to be different I really want to put At the Circus, but it's been so long since I've seen that one I can't remember much about it! Wait, was that the one with Lydia the Tattooed Lady?

...Checking YouTube....

Yes, it is!!

Okay, for that song alone I'll say At the Circus. And also because I want to be unique so badly and not say Gone with the Wind even though oh my God I love Vivien so much and Clark Gable can smile at me with his beautiful false teeth anytime and I'll swoon, every time.

3. Favorite Carole Lombard Screwball role?

Twentieth Century. No, wait, My Man Godfrey! D'ohhhh....

She was better in Godfrey, so I'll give that one the nod. Twentieth Century was principally John Barrymore's show, if you ask me--though Lombard was, as always, super swell in that one too. But she was so manically bright in My Man Godfrey that I was pretty sure she was going to explode and start spewing glittery crazy. 

There's a reason she and Gracie are my favorite screwball heroines. Although whoever gave her those godawful bangs in Godfrey should have been dunked in that shower instead.

PS. don't you think if she were a few years younger, Amy Poehler would make a smashing Carole in a biopic? Both tiny blondes brimming with energy, and with zany, devilish expressions.

4. Favorite off screen couple? (It’s ok if it ended in divorce.)
I plan to talk about this more in-depth in a V-Day post, but for now I'll give you a sneak peek and say Charles Boyer and Pat Paterson.

Well, either them or Peter Cushing and Helen Beck. I'll talk about both couples on the fourteenth, so I'll save the reasoning for then. I'll just say this: I really like bittersweet love stories tinged with pathos. Because I'm a total creep.

5. Favorite pair of best friends? (i.e: Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford)
Speaking of Cushing, I'll go with his friendship with Christopher Lee. I read somewhere that the last time they saw each other before Cushing passed away they sang a Jimmy Durante song together. Drac and Van Helsing. Singing Durante. Think about it. Love it.

6. Favorite actor with a mustache? 
Sam Elliott. Because sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you.

7. Favorite blonde actress?
This one's difficult, and changes a lot. One month it'll be Tuesday Weld, the next Sue Lyon. After that, Elke Sommer. After that, Toby Wing. After that, Marion Marsh.

I think my overall answer is Michelle Pfeiffer, but right now I'll go with the recently departed Jill Haworth, since I discovered her not too long ago. She played one of the most adorable, likable one-time characters I've ever seen in a TV series, that of Cathy in a 1963 episode of the original Outer Limits called "The Sixth Finger". She was earnest, sweet, and uniquely drop-dead gorgeous.

The full episode is on YouTube here, and I'd recommend it to scifi, romance, and quirky British mining townfolk fans. Oh, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fans, too. You'll see.

8. Favorite pre-code?
Naughty, gaudy, bawdy, 42nd Street.

Well, look at that. I got a shot of Toby Wing in after all.

9. Which studio would you have liked to join?
Poor neglected Paramount! Get me some Lillian Roth/Thelma Todd roles in Marx Bros classics! (Count me out when you get to the MGM and Kitty Carlisle years. The boys were still funny, but that's about it).

10. Favorite common on screen pairing that SHOULD have gotten married? 
Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr! They adored each other and he rubbed her feet!

Ha ha, I've made this look far dirtier than it actually is in context.

I love the stories about their working together for the first time on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Mitchum was allegedly apprehensive about starring with a broad who had such a "Great Prim Lady" reputation, but all that changed on one of the first days of shooting when something went wrong and she cussed out John Huston. He about keeled over laughing. 

11. Favorite I Love Lucy episode?
VItameatavegamin is Lucy at her funniest as a comedienne.

12.  Out of these actresses which one do you like best: Lucille Ball, Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Greer Garson, or Katharine Hepburn?
Ho dang. Toss up between Kate and Ingrid...I'll go with Ingrid. It's that damn Swedish statuesque aura, it does elevate her so ethereally above us mortal women. And I'm calling it: most beautiful smile ever photographed, ever.

13. Shadowy film noir from the 1940’s or splashy colorful musicals from the 1950’s?
Well, depends. I'll take the worst noir over the worst musical, but the best musical over the best noir. The best musical, of course, being Singin' in the Rain. So just for that, I'll give the nod to musicals, which makes me feel less hardcore and mysterious than the image of myself I've built up in my head.

But whatevs:

14. Actor or actress with the best autograph (photo preferred).
I'm actually going with a writer, one George Bernard Shaw. Why? Because of what's hanging up on my parents' wall.

"I inscribe this volume to Mr. William Henry Crawford whom I do not know at the request of Mr. H. Plunket Woodgate whom I do not know, but who invokes the memory of Jim Penrose whom I remember very well."
G. Bernard Shaw
22nd Oct. 1931

This was bequeathed to us by my mother's stepgrandma after said stepgrandma died. Apparently either she or my great-grandfather received this from a guy named William Henry Crawford, who knew a guy named H. Plunket Woodgate, who knew a guy named Jim Penrose, who knew a guy named George Bernard Shaw. So obviously, when Woodgate saw Shaw in a restaurant or something one day, he felt evoking the name of Penrose would yield positive results for one Mr. Crawford in the volume which is now lost somewhere in time--which did indeed yield positive results, since Shaw gave him the above autograph, summing up everything.

And now it's on our wall. 

15. A baby (or childhood, or teenage) photo of either your favorite actress or actor (or both, if you’d like.)