Archive for December, 2011

The Adventures of Tin Tin

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART with tags , , on December 31, 2011 by travsd

If I do say so myself, some of the best performances I have ever given are forever lost and were witnessed only by an audience of two (and, gee, I sure hope they back me up on that!). I refer of course to bedtime reading to my two boys. The various Tin Tin books were a personal favorite as they allowed me to voice the titular boy reporter, the crusty Captain Haddock, absent-minded Professor Calculus, detectives Thomson and Thompson, and even Snowy. Like millions of others, then, we had a personal stake in the current screen adaptation by Steven Spielberg.

To say that we are disappointed would be an overstatement. This is a perfectly entertaining family film, appropriate in every way to its audience and the needs of the moment. And, as the saying goes, it ain’t Shakespeare.

But it is Spielberg. A genius of action, suspense and horror, he has been capable of cooking up near perfect confections when he is smart enough to stay away from “significance” or sentiment, which times have been depressingly rare. To my mind, he’s only hit the bull’s eye on a handful of occasasions: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan. Of the rest of his films, most range from forgettable to bad, generally because Spielberg seems unacquainted with that ancient Greek dictum: “Know thyself”. His two heroes (Hitchcock and Disney) both had the good sense to know what sort of films they were making, and for whom. Speilberg is always stepping out of his element to express “ideas” and “feelings”, which are just not his metier. But when he sticks to thrills, magic happens. This is why we had high hopes for Tin Tin, which contains nothing but colorful adventure.

While, as I said, the picture is fine, it does stop short of the Spielbergian tour de force you might hope for given the source material. Based on three Tin Tin books, The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), it gives us plenty of chase scenes, gunplay, kidnapping, and twisty-turny mystery. What it never does do is take that extra step we come to look for from Speilberg. At his best, he takes us on a ride we’ve never been on before, and strings it out like a merciless roller coaster ride, until we are begging for mercy by the end. There’s none of that here, although there were several opportunities for him to do so. At one point, the heroes are heading into a bank of thunderheads in their little airplane. For a second it looks like we are in for a thrill ride, but he blows it off. Similarly a long chase scene through a Moroccan port city (the film’s climax) feels perfunctory, with perhaps one or two nice surprises, rather than the two dozen we would rightly expect. This is despite the fact that the film is animated (consider the possibilities) and in 3-D (the potential of which is not really explored). My working theory is that, because Spielberg was simultaneously directing another film (War Horse) when he made this one, he stretched himself thin, and didn’t go as deeply into this one as he might have. (I may have to stay away from War Horse for some time, though, reeking as it does of “significance” and sentiment).

To his credit, Spielberg leaves in some of the politically incorrect elements: Tin Tin is a pistol-packing teenager, and Captain Haddock an unreformable drunkard. In true modern Hollywood style, however, the script steers clear of the slapstick potential of Haddock’s predilection, and the script in general is not as funny as it ought to be. The fabric of the books contain as much comedy as adventure. Speilberg’s comic touch here  is light to nonexistent, given the potential. And of course he falls in line with the sick modern impulse to humanize cartoon characters. What bizarre freaks did Hollywood market-test this trend on, that they think we want to see the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat played by comedians in make-up, Under Dog as an actual canine, and Scooby Doo with human eyes? The charm of Herge’s drawings is missing here in favor of semi-human 3-D people-oids, with boring-ass actor voices, rather than lively, funny character voices one wants and expects from such material.

Yet, still, it’s not by any stretch “bad”. It’s a wonderful movie to send kids to without worrying they are going to come home with their minds full of garbage. And that’s rare enough, so The Adventures of Tin Tin has my endorsement. (Besides, it sets us up for a sequel involving a Caribbean treasure hunt. This one feels like it ends before the true climax — perhaps it occurs in the sequel)

Rex Allen: Classic Cowboy

Posted in Crackers, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2011 by travsd

Rex Allen (born this day in 1920) is undoubtedly best known to modern audiences as that highly recognizable narrator of Disney wildlife movies (and many other films and commercials.) He started out as a vaudeville singer, moved on to radio, record albums and B movie westerns as a singing cowboy in the the 1940s and 50s. He primarily did voice-over work during his last decades, right up until his death in 1999.

 

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Hugo

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on December 30, 2011 by travsd

Hugo? Children? Allow me to digress with this reminiscence, concerning the other Hugo, the Man of a Thousand Faces:

Okay, now that’s out of the way.

After weeks of eager anticipation I finally got to see Martin Scorsese’s Hugo with my kids yesterday. Frequently such waiting periods are killers, creating expectations that can’t be met when confronted with the actual work. Further, there’s that omnipresent Scorsese-worry, e.g. the concern that he can only make masterpieces when the subject matter is thuggery. Though he’s proven otherwise with such brilliant films as The Aviator and his Bob Dylan documentary, the statistical evidence, the sheer weight of his expertly-realized goombah pictures vs. flawed experiments like The Age of Innocence gives one pause. What would he do with, or should I say to a children’s book?

The answer turns out to be “interpret it perfectly”. One hoped, if not suspected, that that would be the case given the subject matter, but ya never know. Based on Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story concerns an orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield) who spends his days maintaining the clocks in Paris’s busy train station. His companion in the station’s attic is an automaton he had been fixing with his father before the latter died in a fire. Hugo’s quest to fix the automaton and learn where it came from leads him to its creator, the actual Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) now a humble toy merchant utterly abandoned by the public that once adored him. The story is a paean to the powers of fantasy, and one wonders at first how that could be right for Scorcese, whose metier is normally brutal reality. It’s the gritty realism of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull that everyone raves about. And think of what happens when he tries other genres.  His attempt at a Hollywood musical  New York, New York is downright hilarious, essentially having at its center a foul-mouthed psychotic wife beater (Robert DeNiro) and his battered abused wife (Liza Minnelli). Hugo is the sort of movie we usually get from Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam (although I must say “not lately” in either case).

Yet, knowing Scorcese’s well-publicized backstory (not to say myth) there is much here for him to latch onto, and that’s just what he does. Scorcese was a sickly child, and a loner. A severe asthmatic, he spent all of his time looking out the window and going to the movies. He relates to Hugo big time. You see it in the first shot of the boy, peeking out from behind a clock in the station. Peeking, peeking, always peeking. The connection between the voyeur and the future film-maker. It’s part of Hitchcock’s myth and Scorsese’s as well. And the fantasy part? Well, the movies are fantasy, aren’t they? And (especially when we’re talking about Hollywood) even the most “realistic” of them are fantasies. They aren’t, after all, our own lives. We watch them to get away from the meanness of our own streets. This movie is a love poem, not to only to the magical artistry of Méliès, but to the movies in general.

I might add that this film does have its documentary aspects.  Scorcese uses this opportunity to teach us about a great film-maker, just as he had previously taught us about George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Elia Kazan and the great blues musicians. One of my happiest take-aways from this film is that children will walk out of it knowing about the birth of movies.

Further, technically, he knocks it out of the park, and it shouldn’t be surprising. While he’s famous for his realism, he’s not a “straight-ahead” film maker. His effects are frequently, one might say usually hallucinatory. Think of those fight scenes in Raging Bull or Henry Hill’s cocaine meltdown in Goodfellas. My experience was MUCH enhanced by the fact that the movie was preceded by several previews for films that represent 3-D at its LAMEST — several re-releases of previously non-3-D films with 3-D effects now slapped on top.  Right from the first frame, Scorcese uses the three dimensions at his disposal, taking us up and down corridors, staircases, walls, moving past crowds of people, over them, under them. Snowflakes fall. He thought the entire movie through in three dimensions before he created it; then he shot it that way. 95% of the time, it is organic and it works, though there are moments when it is a hair too gratuitous, not only in that old-fashioned “Comin’ At Ya!” 3-D way, but also in Scorcese’s OWN way (I’m thinking of shots like Griffin Dunn’s thrown keys in After Hours). But the VIGOR it took to make this film, both physical and intellectual, is impressive in the extreme.

The danger of the old Scorcese rearing his head appears only once, and where that danger emerges is predictable. As the villainous station master, he cast Sacha Bara Cohen. It is a risky, inspired choice.  Cohen is an improvisational actor par excellence and Scorcese is Hollywood’s premiere director of improvisational actors. I think he had the idea of getting some silent comedy type slapstick antics into the film, in honor of the subject (we also get clips and references to Harold Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton, Max Linder, and Jacques Tati). But Cohen and Scorcese have dark sensibilities. It’s a bit like getting a couple of alcoholics in a room together, and they come a couple of times a hair’s breadth from crossing the line. (Perhaps they do cross it, but I’m pretty dark myself). The leg brace Cohen wears as the character has divergent functions. It gives us more sympathy for him. And it creates opportunity for slapstick. Unfortunately, the slapstick doesn’t work…because we have sympathy for him (sympathy we wouldn’t have had if not for the leg brace, because the character is a nasty piece of work.) Thus a scene where the station inspector is being dragged by a train down a platform because it is hooked to his leg brace is not just not funny, it’s, well, objectionable. Cohen ad libs many funny lines in the film, but again, many of them I feel are inappropriate for young people.

But the edifying effect Hugo will have on young people far outweighs those fleeting moments. In the end, all the characters in the film (including the station inspector, a big change from the book) are a big, happy family. That may be a fantasy of course, but that’s just sort of fantasy I go to the movies to see.

Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Latin American/ Spanish, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on December 30, 2011 by travsd

Vincent Lopez (born this day in 1895) was a popular bandleader of the 1920s and 30s. He started out as a piano player for vaudeville acts like Rooney and Bent. In 1917 he organized his first band and began touring big time vaudeville (including the Palace) in the early 20s. Once vaudeville faded he played live radio from hotel ballrooms through 1965. He passed away in 1975.

Here now his 1929 recording of “Chant of the Jungle”

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Artist

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Frenchy, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), Silent Film with tags , , , , , on December 29, 2011 by travsd

I made my first silent films in 1984 (on actual film) and have made several forays into the form over the ensuing decades — a new batch is in the works in conjunction with my new book Chain of Fools (due out September 2012).  This of course makes me both the best and the worst sort of audience for something like The Artist and if I was the only one, I’d feel bad about it. A pre-screening canvas of my friends about the film proved to be a catalog of nitpicking. A graphic designer friend said the font in the titles was all wrong. A silent film scholar friend said, no, the fonts were correct, but the kerning and justification were all off. A friend who’s a fashion historian said the costumes drove her crazy. Me, I picked out an airplane that was from the wrong period, and thought much of the music and some of the camerawork seemed anachronistic.

Ah, but for what? There’s an object lesson here for those of us who love to do these formal “classical” exercises, and that’s that it invites knowledgable audience members to play a fairly irrelevant game of gotcha. These compromises (and there are undoubtedly a lot more) are in the end superficial. Not only would you find just as many in any such period piece, but as all producers know, each one was more likely the result of an informed conversation and a choice rather than a mistake made out of ignorance.

The point of the film is the story; no one ever said this was to be an exercise in historical education. Such a looking-backward is by definition Romantic. In assembling his fairy tale scenario, writer director Michel Hazanavicius seems to have asked himself “What would Chaplin do?”  In his later years, Chaplin increasingly dealt with changes in 20th century aesthetics by looking wistfully backwards and crafting simple, poetic tales that drew from those 19th century forms the pantomime and the melodrama. (I’m thinking chiefly of A Woman of Paris, The Circus, City Lights and Limelight). When he was on his game, the results were magic. The best Hollywood films can be expressed on the back of a matchbook: King Kong, The Champ, Scarface. The balancing act is of course to do a story everyone already knows, but to do it in such a way that it is sufficiently new that it will hold our interest. Here, Hazanavicius has mostly plundered A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain. Jean Dujardin is a swashbuckling star of silent films; Bérénice Bejo his new discovery, whose very name is “Peppy”. When talkies come in, Dujardin refuses to change and is washed up. Bejo becomes the new flavor of the month. The two also happen to love one another. It seems unresolvable, until the germ of the happy ending, planted early in the picture, sprouts at the 11th hour.

The expert handling of the silent conventions presents it from being hackneyed. Part of the film’s brilliance lies in its casting. Dujardin is a dream, so very Fairbanks-like (and yet his own) that you never could have made him up: all charm, virility and sex appeal, tempered by crow’s feet and a receding hairline. (As though to strike the point home, at one point Hazanavicius presents a scene from Fairbanks’ Zorro as though it belonged to his main character). The other star he resembles will be less well known to contemporary American audiences, but hopefully better known to the French: Max Linder, the cinema’s first comedy star, all silk top hats and opera capes and Parisian glamour. The real-life Linder, like the hero of this film, was suicidal (although for reasons other than the coming of sound, and, sadly, was successful at his attempt). In addition to his skills as a comedian and a dramatic actor, Dujardin can passably tap dance, which proves to be the character’s salvation. Bejo as Peppy is his match in every way (and how lucky for her that she has the flapper body type in addition to being Mrs. Hazanavicius.) The balance of the ensemble is mostly made up of familiar faces, most seemingly with echoes of previous performances:  John Goodman as a cigar smoking producer reminiscent of his turn in Matinee; Penelope Ann Miller, who played Edna Purviance in Chaplin; and James Cromwell as a chauffeur, looking much as he did 35 years ago in Murder by Death. And there’s even a dog, a sort of cross between Tin-Tin’s Snowy and Rin-Tin-Tin (himself a silent star), who actually plays a pretty crucial role in the proceedings.

I had some other misgivings before going in: Silent melodramas (as opposed to comedies and swashbucklers) are often dreary to watch. As are certain modern attempts to recreate the genre (I’m thinking mainly of the films of Guy Maddin, which are beautiful but a little of him goes a long way). But Hazanavicius has his eye on the bottom line. There’s enough comedy, drama, sex, action and even dance to keep the thing moving. And in the end, a silent film, like any film, is about movement. We were engaged and moved the whole time.

As someone who watches silent film all the time and cares about it, the chatter about The Artist can at times be depressing and alienating: “I never thought I could sit still and watch a silent film!” But in the end, of course, it’s been heartening. Because millions of people obviously are watching a silent film and enjoying it, which is an exciting development.

On the King James Bible

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME with tags , , on December 25, 2011 by travsd

Much beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth recently at the passing of Christopher Hitchens. Knowing little about the man, I found myself little moved. He seemed to have had an open mind, not given to dogma, and that’s certainly to be admired. I find myself less impressed with his flamboyant espousal of atheism, which I consider a puerile, rather adolescent intellectual pose, ungenerous, dishonest, and hypocritical in the main.

Have the great religions caused great injustices, great miseries? I was about to say “undoubtedly”, but realized that this isn’t actually the case. Religions are human institutions, based (sometimes debased) on human ideals. Institutions are only instruments. The miseries (as well as the good works) are caused by the people who run them. Trashing the church for its long list of atrocities seems like pretty disingenuous stuff from an admirer of Lenin, whose atheistic legacy includes millions dead, tortured and oppressed in the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern bloc, China, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam etc. etc. etc. And at the same time, discounting the good work religion does on a billion fronts daily seems like willful blindness. Does religion cruelly divide us? Yes. And if it didn’t, don’t worry. Human beings would draw some other convenient lines to divide them. Color, class, nationality, favorite radio station – we’re very good at that. And tell me, what, WHAT offers the troubled soul solace like religion? The comforts of atheism? You’re joking, right? If you don’t like it, don’t join, but you don’t have to spoil my party.

Anyway, I am rather chagrined that while this guy’s death seemed to produce thousands of online lamentations, little ink seems to have been spilt about an occasion this year that’s actually worth marking and celebrating: the 400th anniversary of the completion of the King James Bible.

With the works of Shakespeare and Milton, the King James Version of the Bible is the greatest work of literature in the English language. Its influence on me as a writer has been incalculable. You do not even have to (as I have) read it extensively or even be religious to be under its sway. Its idioms, proverbs and turns of phrase so utterly permeate the language that most people are quoting it all day without even realizing it. It is the thread that makes up the fabric of our language. “A drop in the bucket”, “the handwriting on the wall”, “the leopard can’t change its spots” – there are thousands more like this.

Like many theatrical people, I value ritual and this kind of rich language. I was raised an Episcopalian. I like robes, incense, pipe organs – and this 400 year old version of the Bible. Modern translations, with their quotidian jargon stripped of all mystery and majesty, are enough to make me turn into, well…an atheist. .

The Sunday after September 11, my family and I made our annual visit to church (just so you know where we stand. I’m not exactly a fanatic here.) But never had I been more appreciative of the old rituals of my boyhood. During the service, fighter jets were screaming overhead. This, I thought, is why people call religion “a rock.” When the moorings seem to give way, you can cling to the very ritual of it. It is a comfort.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. These words of Ecclesiastes kept going through my head that day. I’ve certainly encountered no comparable words of wisdom or poetry in what I’ve read so far from the pen of Christopher Hitchens.

Here are a tiny handful of Biblical quotations famed for their conciseness of expression, beauty and power:

Matthew 6:28-29
And why are you anxious about what to wear? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed like one of these.

Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Daniel v. 27
Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.

Peter IV. 8
Charity shall cover the multitude of sins.

Ecclesiastes 2:26
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.

Psalms 119:105
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

Romans 12:21
Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

Matthew 16:26
For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?

And lastly, in honor of the day, this account of the Nativity, well-known to you atheists from Linus’s recitation of it in the Peanuts Christmas special:

Luke 2:8-11

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

You don’t have to be a believer it to admire it or find it beautiful.

Eddie Rector: Vaudeville’s Best Soft Shoe

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2011 by travsd

Born this day in 1890, Eddie Rector was considered by many to be vaudeville’s best soft shoe dancer and the principle rival to Bill Robinson at tap. He was also one of the first dancers to fully use the stage in his routine rather than remaining firmly planted to one spot in the Irish clogging tradition. Starting out in his youth as a “pick”, he worked in black vaudeville, burlesque and revues, eventually making it to Broadway in the early part of the 30s. Later, he would become a familiar sight at Harlem venues like the the Cotton Club and the Apollo, but he spent several of his last years institutionalized for a reported nervous breakdown. He passed away in 1962.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t  miss my new book Chainof Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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