Wednesday, November 29, 2006
The movie ends with Julie attending to Preston on the way to Lazarette Island, but it does not show the two on the island. That’s a curious omission since the entire film seems to lead Julie to encounter death, face to face. Had the film showed Julie facing the horrors of the island, then the audience could have determined whether or not Julie's character grew over the course of the story. This miscalculation in Jezebel is no fault of Betty Davis whose portrayal is inspired and magnificent. Whereas Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett is more unassuming in her audacity, Davis’s Julie is more exacting (even when her thinking is wrong).
Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Preston is not so wishy-washy as his counterpart in Gone with the Wind, Ashley Wilkes. At the beginning of Jezebel, when Preston is still engaged to Julie, he seems content on giving her a long leash. Despite her father’s encouragement for Preston to beat Julie into submission, Preston refrains. When Julie insists on wearing a devilishly red dress to the ball, however, Preston is pushed beyond his limits. In a brilliant courtship maneuver, Preston accompanies the red-clad Julie to the ball and then forces her to dance all night long. Julie breaks down at the immense consternation she receives on the dance floor and begs Preston to take her back home, but he refuses and continues to force her to dance (the rest of the dancers have long since cleared the floor). Preston manages her with a sure hand, quietly rubbing her nose in her own audacity as if it was a wet spot on the floor. Yet, mysteriously, Preston does not use this demonstration of his power as a tool for their future relationship. When he finally returns her home after the ball, Preston says goodbye. Off screen, Preston goes up north and comes back years later with a Yankee wife, proof that he is over Julie for good. There are moments when Julie’s efforts come close to jeopardizing his fidelity, but unlike Ashley Wilkes, Preston stands firm. It is love’s tragedy that someone as vivacious as Julie (with such an exquisite bossom) pined away all her time hoping to regain Preston’s hand in vain.
Jezebel has much to augment the character aspects of the story. Through the capable hands of the Warner Brothers set designers, New Orleans is brought to life with all its historic (and romantic) possibilities. Street scenes and barroom scenes are masterfully done. According to the movie, duels were still a common practice and speaking a woman’s name in a bar was grounds for a duel. There is a lot of discussion about the Yellow Fever and several old men talk about the horrible epidemic in 1836. Dialogue describing things off screen is very important for creating the world on the screen, and this movie does a wonderful job at it. Though the Yellow Fever is not seen, talk of draining the swamps and taking all the smart precautions to save New Orleans reinforces the sense that off camera there is a whole city. When the Yellow Fever approaches and the main characters retreat to the plantation north of the fever line, a sense of isolation steals over the audience. Towards the end, the fever reveals itself. First, a runaway line-breaker is shot by some patrols near the plantation; then Preston is bit by a misquito; and finally Preston has to go to New Orleans to help the fever victims. The fever gradually gets closer to the events in the movie. When Julie arrives in New Orleans to care for Preston, the streets are lined with fires to ward off the insects, people are huddled in rooms trying to avoid the pandemic and everybody is near panic. But that is as close as the audience gets to the fever. Though much was said about Lazarette Island and it was naturally assumed that the story would go there, it cuts off, instead, on the way to the island. The pay-off scenes, with horrific images likened to a Gustav Dore print, never happen. Perhaps budget restraints interfered with the final production, but such a scene could have given this film an extra one and a half stars. As it stands, there is no resolution, no dramatic release and, subsequently, no four stars.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
For there was a lot of agony in Demmie. Some women wept softly as a watering can in the garden. Demmie cried passionately, as only a woman who believes in sin can cry. When she cried you not only pitied her, you respected her strength of soul.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Portrait of Hercules. Pen and ink illustration in navy cloth covered library book. The picture is accompanying an abridged version of his biography. He reclines luxuriously upon a bearskin rug, sitting before a fire. He wears a lion skin tunic of thick dark fur. His muscular arms and legs are left uncovered. His handsome smile wears a beard. Many women surround him and enchant him with dances. I believe there was wine available to him as well as fruits.
A portrait of power and strength. He is the iconic independent, self-made man who relishes meeting challenges. He is a role model unto the cult of the masculine. In Greek mythology, Hercules was a divine/super hero: the son of Zeus/Jupiter. He was the greatest of the Greek heroes and a paragon of masculinity. According to the generally accepted accounts of his life, he’s a lot like Superman: half mortal, half immortal. Seeking adventure and righting wrongs. However, his background has darker moments. His prime directive, kill or be killed, challenges him mentally as well as physically. In storytellings, these darker elements are usually passed over in favor of glorifying his heroic accomplishments and virtuous, masculine ways.
Steve Reeves does excellent work in a short tunic portraying the classic Greek hero in two Italian productions from the late fifties. Hercules (1958) directed by Pietro Francisci, became an international success due to Reeve’s commanding presence, good looks, mesmerizing physique and handsome smile. Francisci promptly followed it with Hercules Unchained in 1959.
Hercules’ script draws from the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. The role of Hercules is expanded, and elements of his twelve labors as well as his future wife Iole are included. It is worth noting that for the film, Hercules' youthful companion Hylas is replaced by the young Ulysses as a traveling comapnion/sidekick.
Both films are beautifully photographed in breathtaking Mediterranean landscapes. Crashing waves on windswept beaches provide dramatic background for the mythic characters. Chariots pulled by horses, boats with sails, open arenas and other outdoor environments recreate a sense of what it must have been like to have lived among a scantily clad peoples. The actors and actresses radiate a healthful tan from the long hours spent shooting out in full sun.
The interior scenes are subtly colorful and lightly mysterious, a pleasant counterpoint to the exterior scenes. The lighting is done well. The music is good. The opening titles are good. It’s all good, but truly, it is Steve that makes it great. He’s got the look. He’s got the arms. The glare reflecting from his oiled biceps can become overpowering at times. Polarized filters may be useless against their strength. They fill the screen with white flickering immortality. Steve Reeves is Hercules transmogrified. He is channeling Hercules. He has Hercules within him. He isn’t just acting.
Reeves probably was Hercules in a previous life. Just look at him. Reeves was in the army and fought in a war. Hercules joined an army, he fought in a war.
Hercules fought a lion. Steve Reeves could have fought a lion if he wanted to.
Reeves became half immortal through his work. Hercules’ work did become a movie. All coincidence?
Hercureeves can out-fight or out-wit any man. When strength alone is not enough to win the battle, he is not above using deceit or trickery, such as when he tricked Atlas to take the world back upon his shoulders. He will only do so in the best interests of all, to enact justice. He helps children cross streams. He kills animals with his hands. He wins Olympic competitions. He stops wild horses. He chases girls. And while he does it, he looks fabulous.
The costumes Reeves wears are to die for. His lion skin is scientifically cut to feature Reeve’s best assets: his well-defined v-shaped profile. His hemline is cut scandalously short. He wears his tunics one-shouldered, with robust pectorals. Belted at the waist with a thick leather WWF style championship belt. At his wrists, a pair of thick leather wristbands to match. At his feet, a strappy sandal: dark brown straps wrapped up to the mid-calf. With his dark hair and trimmed beard framing his handsome face, standing tall in his clean, well-pumped body, Hercureeves is devastating.
In a battle scene from Hercules Unchained, he wears a dynamic style of tighty-whities - something that might be a one piece of cloth wraparound trick, yet skillfully constructed in the costume department. In keeping with previous costumes, it is quite minimal. He wears this in a spectacular battle scene wherein he takes on many men and swords in a scene so gloriously triumphant it is beyond the power of words to relate.
When he’s out exercising with the local boys, he wears a comfortable style of active sport tunic miniskirt, split in the front for easy mobility during manly activities. All the boys are wearing one. Of course, these sport tunics are a contrivance of propriety, as historical accuracy information suggests that Athenian guys exercised unclothed. This lack of historical accuracy is the one lamentable travesty of the film, as in that it lacks any full frontal views of Steve Reeves.
When some of the secondary characters go swimming, the swimsuits seem so inappropriate. Greek gods and demigods and mortals didn’t wear swimsuits on summer afternoons. But for the purposes of film, the designs of the outfits are charming and do complement the actors. These discreet outfits dress the story with a prudish niceness to portray a tame rendition of the sometimes adult-situational instances.
According to legend it is said that in his early youth, Hercules killed his music tutor with a lyre. As punishment, he was sent to tend cattle on a mountainside. Here, he was visited by two nymphs: Pleasure and Virtue. They offered him a choice between a pleasant and easy life, or a severe but glorious life. He chose the latter. One of Hercules' first challenges was put to him by King Thespius who wished him to impregnate each of his 50 daughters. Accordingly, Hercules did this in one night.
The path to the Twelve Labors started when Hercules married King Creon's daughter, Megara. Angered with him, Hera drove Hercules into a fit of madness during which he killed his wife Megara and their children, as well as his brother’s children. Upon realizing what he had done, he fled to the Oracle of Delphi. Unbeknownst to him, the Oracle was guided by Hera. As punishment, he was directed to serve Eurystheus, who had become king in Hercules’ place, and perform any task Eurystheus required of him. These challenges became the Twelve Labors, a tale which achieved notoriety and infamy as Hercules was able to successfully complete them all. Particular tasks, such as the killing of the Nemean Lion, are closely associated and therefore frequently included in stories about Hercules.
Reeves wrestled that lion and wore the skin deliciously. For so many, appetites for musclemen with sword and sandal had increased. Fortunately, Italian film studios were productive throughout the mid-sixties. There are many, many enjoyable Hercules-oriented movies available, and they will always be there for you. Always and always.
An additional title for those interested in seeing more: Giant of Marathon, 1959. Directed by Jacques Tourneur and Mario Bava, featuring Steve Reeves as Phillipides. Pheidippides, hero of Ancient Greece, is sometimes written as Phidippides or Philippidesis. His myth is said to be the inspiration for the creation of the marathon as a sporting event. Pheidippides, an Athenian herald, ran thirty-four kilometers in two days from the battlefield by the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC. Upon delivering the message, it is said he then died on the spot.
Giant of Marathon opens at an Olympic Games ceremony, where we are introduced to Phillipireeves. Apparently he is the winner of everything. He is given a medal and laurel wreath and an appreciative audience. His admirers in the audience call for him to become a leader of politics or military endeavors of some type, and when he accepts, the storyline deviates heavily from the above-stated tale regarding Phidippides.
The most striking difference between Reeves as Hercules and Phillipides is that Hercules is bearded, whereas the Giant of Marathon was clean shaven. Unbearded.
Phillipireeves becomes enchanted by women and is exposed to situations similar to that of Hercules. Fires burn as fountains flow and women dance with lips upon flutes and strumming upon harps. Drinks are not love potions, the women joke. Wrestlers are brought in for entertainment, but Phillipireeves objects. “I do enjoy wrestling, but these are no wrestlers. These are killers, no better than animals.”
To prove his point, a struggle of Freudian proportions begins. Phillipireeves grapples with the killer-wrestler. As with the Nemean Lion, one must kill or be killed, in bare hand to hand combat. Muscles tighten, sweat drips. His arms wrapped around the huge belly, the muscleman dominates and subjectifies his opponent into submission. The agonizing contortions of exertion and release cross the face of the aggressor, his prey is left limp and akimbo upon the cold sticky ground. Phillipireeves slowly rises, finds his cape, and tosses it over his shoulder as he casually walks away. He would have smoked a cigarette if he had one.
Later, he’s at the gymnasium with the guys. We find out that most all of them wear these sport tighty-whities for these action shots. Their tunics are pretty short. Then they are recruited to become sailors and go with Jason to find the Golden Fleece, and again I am confused. They fight a sea-battle, and at the end of it I am ready to see Phillipireeves run his ass off and show up in Athens exhausted and spent. But instead, he ‘gets the girl’ and walks away into a sunset. The film fails to account for the story of the Giant of Marathon, but it excels on featuring the many fine points and curves of Steve Reeves.
For the completist, here is a short list of additional Herculeses:
Hercules, 1983, film starring Lou Ferrigno
Hercules, 1997, film the Disney movie
Hercules, 2005, an NBC television movie
Hercules in New York, 1969, Arnold Schwarzenegger's film debut
Hercules: The Animated Series, based on the Disney movie
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, TV-series
The Mighty Hercules, 1963 animated television series
The Sons of Hercules, 1970s television series from Italian films
And a tribute to the Hercules of today: Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, Henry Rollins, Hulk Hogan, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Hawk, Bruce Willis, Shaquille O’Neal, Mr. T, Barry Bonds, Bill Gates, police and firefighters everywhere.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
The little borough of
Even a small town like
The aggrieved citizens of
Enter the third contender, an independent write-in candidate named Dave Musikant. He is also legally blind, due to a tumor removed from his brain. He lives in the basement of his mother’s house. He was once team captain of the Bogota Buccaneers. Musikant immediately wins the audiences sympathy with a can-do optimism that verges on the naïve. But with no funding or experience Musikant is a long shot. He loves
Musikant is a likeable guy, but slightly flakey. There is a touching scene showing him going door to door on a quiet small town afternoon. There is very little action, few are at home, and he stops for a moment to gaze at an American flag in a store window. We feel what this town and
Things get interesting when Doug Friedline, the hired gun who orchestrated Jessie Ventura’s successful gubernatorial run, decides to join his campaign. Musikant has almost nothing to work with, save the Bogota Bucs, now in the middle of a winning season, several of whom volunteer for Musikant, but Friedline appreciates a good challenge.
All of this is shown sans narration. It is a throwback style in the vein of the great early documentarian Robert Drew, albeit a style that is more contemporary and media savvy. The story keeps within a frame of 2 months till the election. It’s all very compelling and suspenseful. Fraga and company might say that the story told itself, that they just were there to capture it, but that’s too modest. Their gargantuan task of editing hundreds of hours of footage down to a mere 90 minutes is accomplished with much artistry. A lot happens during the brief running time, and it happens very cleanly and quickly.
To proceed to the main lesson that I took home from
So what is my take home lesson? Storytellers tell stories. They are naturally attracted to an interesting human narrative; but this can be deceptive. Even as an independent write-in candidate, I expected Musikant to do better. In the context of the film he seemed to be gaining a true momentum that was belied by political reality. Like much in Anytown, U.S.A., we can extrapolate a wider phenomenon. The media, after all, is full of storytellers. A quick round robin of interview clips on election eve elicits varied responses -- "Lonegan"-- "Musikaa.." -- "That Pesce guy" -- but one sideburned Bogotian says it best. It sounds like a poem, William Carlos Williams maybe:
I could tell you all day long
If that's what you want to hear.
Yeah, I'm voting for you.
I can go to Pesce and tell him
That's what you want to hear?
Yeah, I'm voting for you.
'Cause when I go in there
I close the curtain
Nobody knows who I voted for
That's when they count them up.
That's when they realize
Somebody lied to me.
My only quibbles with the movie are unanswered questions I had afterwards that maybe could have been included in the epilogue. How did the Bogota Bucs end their season? What happened to the school and how did a winning season affect it? Was Mayor Lonegan at all responsive to citizens disturbed by plans for moving the school? I suppose all these questions can be answered by investigating the public record, but it would be nice to know now. But that's small stuff.
Like all great documentaries, Anytown U.S.A. shows us things we might never had heard about or seen, even when they are the very familiar things all around us, and we are richer for it.
Friday, November 03, 2006
Was General Spanky as funny in 1936 as it is today? Time has twisted this picture from the wholesome boundaries of its intended domain to something that today’s social climate cannot tolerate. It runs counter to some very basic ideas we have about children, sex and race (and yet, it is not racy). No producer would touch General Spanky today because its very fiber is now offensive, and yet, ironically, its heart is so purely innocent and benign that it requires a sense of guilt in order to abhor it.
An orphaned drifter, Spanky (George McFarland), stows aboard a riverboat and meets with runaway slave Buckwheat (Billie Thomas). Buckwheat is in search of a master and adopts Spanky to fill that capacity. Initially Spanky rejects the offer, but is forced to accept it when Buckwheat, acting without consent, tries to help Spanky’s shoe shine business with an ill-conceived scam that involuntarily implicates Spanky. When Buckwheat's scam is discovered, a chase by grown-ups ensues and sends the pint sized pair headlong into the river (the film's funniest moment). Back on shore and in search of food, Spanky comes across an enlightened Confederate officer (whom he met at the very beginning of the movie. He will be referred to hereafter as ‘Gentleman Rebel’) who takes care of him. The Gentleman Rebel likes Spanky because of his moxy, but is not aware that Spanky has a hungry slave in tow since Buckwheat had remained just out of sight. Hilarity follows as Spanky and the Gentleman Rebel feast on a chicken dinner while a malnurished Buckwheat, still hidden, tries to partake in the meal without making his presence known. He is discovered, however, and far from becoming angry, the Gentleman Rebel assumes Buckwheat’s servitude.
When it is time for the Gentleman Rebel to go off to war (yes, the war started somewhere around this point) he lets Spanky and Buckwheat remain at his house. Spanky is adamant about defending the homefront and marches with Buckwheat, patrolling the estate. They run into another army of kids being commanded by Alfalfa. With his own brand of bravado, Spanky envelops and absorbs Alfalfa’s contingent into his army. When the real Yankee army comes to town, the kids have already fortified the place. Mistaking the kids for an actually army, the Yankees lay siege to the rascals. The two forces exchange volleys until the incompetent Yankee colonel calls his general for reinforcements. Overestimating his enemy’s strength, the Yankee colonel toots his own horn when the general arrives and Spanky reluctantly sends up a white flag. The Yankee colonel’s folly is revealed to the general, however, when the scaled down rebels emerge from their fort. Needless to say, Spanky and the incompetent Yankee colonel are instant enemies.
The incompetent colonel is stationed to occupy the town. The plot thickens when he lays eyes on the Gentleman Rebel’s lady. The colonel makes a monkey of himself on several occasions. Meanwhile, the Gentleman Rebel is wounded in a nearby battle and wanders back to his Yank controlled home. Spanky takes care of his guardian and hides him in a secret hideout. When the colonel learns the Gentleman Rebel is nearby, he doggedly, albeit ineptly, tracks him down. After the incompetent colonel manages to arrest the Gentleman Rebel, he wants to execute him because the kids had the Gentleman Rebel dressed in civilian clothes. All looks hopeless until Spanky goes to the Yankee general and pleads his case. The Yankee general sides with Spanky and saves his friend from the firing squad.
General Spanky was ably directed by Fred Newmeyer who is better known for his work on Harold Lloyd gems like The Freshman, Girl Shy, and Safety Last. He was a pioneer of comedy direction and this film profits from such experienced hands. The period scenery is surprisingly detailed and well done, looking like a mix between the Old South and the Depression. General Spanky also walked away with an Academy Award for best sound. Add to that the talent of the kids and you have the components for a solid comedy. However, that is not why it is funny.
General Spanky is funny because, whether it was intended to or not, it upholds these comedy truths: it challenges accepted social behavior; it confronts the rational world with irrationality; and it is surprising in its ignorant audacity. This movie will cause you to squirm more that you will laugh, but it is that very characteristic that makes it resonate long after the viewing. Moments that seemed trifling grow in the digestion. Buckwheat as a willing slave is an uncomfortable image. This movie is an archival crystal ball that gives a sense of how segregation affected racial comedy. It is to Buckwheat’s merit that he still can come across funny instead of tragically sad. When the gang engages the Union army and are fired upon, the intensity almost approaches a Private Ryan level, where real bullets are whizzing all around and General Spanky is acting like Stonewall Jackson. At one point it appeared like the next likely scene will be Alfalfa’s amputation, but alas, it did not go that far. The violence is offset by the villain’s ineptness.
If uniqueness is a claim to genius, then this odd little piece coming from the film factory has an argument.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
Capt. von Rauffenstein (Grand Illusion)
The Invisible Man
Carl Spackler (Caddy Shack)
The Cow (Top Secret!)