Friday, July 30, 2004

Carmen Miranda's Shoes

From the department of obscure Hollywood gossip.....

Carmen Miranda, the Latin American signing and dancing sensation of the 1940s, was known for her wild costumes—tall fruit-filled hats, sexy ruffled dresses, and towering platform shoes. Her shoes, while part of her iconic look, served another purpose as well. According to Kenneth Anger’s HOLLYWOOD BABYLON II, Ms. Miranda kept her cocaine hidden in a secret compartment inside the flashy footwear.

I like Carmen Miranda a lot, and I plan to profile her and an excellent documentary of her life, BANANAS IS MY BUSINESS (1995), in a future post.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

What's New on DVD? Check out the NY Times

The New York Times > Movies > DVD and Home Video > New DVD's: Many Features, Old Cartoons and, Oh Yes, a Movie, Too


Every once in a while, I'll be raving about a film to someone and they will ask, "Where did you find out about it?" One good source is NY TIMES. Every Tuesday, the Times reviews new DVDs released that day. The great thing about their review is that they frequently focus on the obscure releases and kind of gloss over recent Hollywood crap. Today's review features the 1930s Soviet films of director Boris Barnet, French suspense master Claude Chabrol, and the British and American versions of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1978/1981).

Monday, July 26, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 7/19/04

SIX FEET UNDER, Season 2, discs 2 and 3.  More drama and dark humor from the Fisher family and their funeral business. I love the way each episode revolves around a dead “client”, and some of the more quirky guests on discs two and three include an autoerotic asphyxiation, a wrecked Santa Claus biker, and a lonely old maid dead for a week and a devoured by ants. Since I don’t have cable, I have been trying to avoid any talk about the current season (four, I think) now airing on HBO, but what has unfortunately seeped through is that the show has “lost its way”. That’s a shame if true--seasons one and two showcase a superb cast in a truly original, well-written series.

CITY OF GOD (2002).  This Brazilian film received a slew of awards and Academy Award nominations last year—all well deserved. Directed by Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles, City of God tells interconnecting stories about a group of boys growing into men amidst the drugs and violence of Rio’s teeming favelas. Some critics knocked the “glossiness” and “M-TV style” effects of the film, saying it gave the crushing violence of favela life a touch of glamour. I think that is just nit picking. Lund and Meirelles have created an honest and engaging film that tells stories from Rio that are not usually told—no Carnival or Girl-from-Ipanema cliché’s here. If you want to get a raw look at Rio’s slums, then check out the one-hour documentary NEWS FROM A PERSONAL WAR in the special features area of the disc and see how the world-wide “War on Drugs” has wrecked havoc on Brazil’s poor. Crushing bleakness…

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Hollywood Production Code

I am fascinated with Pre-Code Hollywood films. The term “pre-code” generally designates films made between the advent of talk pictures—circa 1929-1930—and the strict enforcement of the censorious Hollywood Production Code in 1934. I am planning a series of entries discussing pre-code films, but for now I want to take a look at the actual “code”.
 
The film industry has long been under scrutiny of cultural conservatives, fearful that movie content may lead the public’s morals astray. In the 1920s, the most popular stories of the day depicted Jazz Age excess—wild youth, adulterous spouses, sophisticated seducers, and such. To fend off increasingly combative civic and religious groups and possible government regulation, the studios hired Will Hays—a former postmaster general under President Warren G. Harding—to clean up the industry. In 1930, under Hays’ direction, Father Daniel Lord (a Jesuit priest) and Martin Quigley (a prominent Roman Catholic layman) wrote the Hollywood Production Code. The overriding theme of the document is stated as such: “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.” The multi-page code and its addenda spell out everything, from a film’s “moral obligation” to how to depict certain plots such as crime and love, to certain strictures on costumes and dancing and definitions of what is obscene and vulgar. I have tried to find the entire Hollywood Production Code text on the internet to no avail, but a tiny sampling of some of its content is as follows:
 

Not plot theme should definitely side with evil against good.
The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust.
“Pure Love”—the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man—is a rightful subject for plots.
Miscegenation (sex relationship between white and black races) is forbidden.
Ministers of religion…should not be used in comedy, as villains, or as unpleasant persons.
Bedrooms: in themselves are perfectly innocent…However, under certain conditions they are bad dramatic locations [when they suggest sex laxity and obscenity].
 
The code was adopted in 1930, yet it was viewed mainly as a PR move. There was lax oversight and very little enforcement, with unfavorable rulings easily appealed. Most films that violated the spirit of the code were released. So really, the term “pre-code” for films released during this time is somewhat of a misnomer—a code was in place, no one was following it.
 
By 1934, under a new outcry to clean up Hollywood and the threat of government censorship under Roosevelt’s New Deal, the studios began harsh enforcement of the code. Will Hays appointed Joseph I. Breen (a former newspaperman and influential Roman Catholic) to enforce the code, which he did with, as one author notes, “missionary zeal.” All Hollywood films were made under the strident code from 1934 until the late 1960s. In a new era of freedom of expression and civil rights, the code came increasingly under attack in the 1950s and 1960s as antiquated and intrusive. Finally, in 1968, the code was dropped altogether for the ratings system (G, PG, R) used today.


As I mentioned above, I could not find a full text of the Hollywood Production Code on the internet. The code appears in Thomas Doherty’s excellent book PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD: SEX, IMMORALITY, AND INSURRECTION IN AMERICAN CINEMA 1930-1934, available in bookstores or at your local library. This book aided in the preparation of this entry.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 7/12/04

Really no rhyme or reason for this week's rentals, so here goes:
 
SIX FEET UNDER, Season 2, disc 1 (2001): HBO has a knack for creating excellent character-driven series, and this is no exception. Six Feet Under follows the Fishers, a highly dysfunctional family that runs a small, Southern California funeral home. I'm pissed that it has taken HBO so long to release the second season (I'm cable-deprived, so DVD is the only way for me to see the show). The writing is top-notch, and seeing the characters again has made me realize how much I've missed them.
 
PARTY MONSTER: THE SHOCKUMENTARY (1998) and PARTY MONSTER (the movie, 2003): It was interesting watching these two films back to back, as they were both made by the same filmmaking team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. In the "shockumentary", we see the real Michael Alig and his Club Kid cohorts tell the story of Alig's descent into drugs and, ultimately, murder. The Club Kids relentlessly documented themselves on video, so the film is chocked full of archival footage of the New York club scene of the late 1980s and 1990s.  The dramatization of Alig's story, on the other hand, is simply good but not great--and I think some of this rests on star Macaulay Culkin. It was halfway through the film before I could let go of the fact that I was watching Culkin playing a gay club kid. I know that its not fair for Culkin to have all that child star baggage, and I give him props for trying to play a character like this, but for me personally, it was still somewhat difficult to accept him in that role. Despite this, the film did a good job at capturing an authentic look and feel of the era. If you want to know the story about Michael Alig and the club land murder, I would go with the documentary.
 
MYSTIC RIVER (2003): Excellent. Director Clint Eastwood and the top tier cast of Sean Penn, Tim Robinson, and Kevin Bacon are in fine form in this dark tale of childhood friends reuniting as damaged adults over the murder of Penn's daughter. My only quibble with the film is the tacked on ending. I'm not giving anything away here, but the film should have ended with Penn walking down the street and Bacon getting into the car--end of story. The added "denouement" seems so unnecessary and has the feel of spoon-feeding the audience. I wonder if studio executives demanded this?


Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Found Photo: The Hollywood Canteen


Hollywood Canteen, circa 1940s Posted by Hello

I recently purchased this 1940s snapshot photo of the HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN at a local antiques store. The canteen--brain child of actor JOHN GARFIELD and based on a similar operation in New York--was designed to entertain and give comfort to military personnel fighting in World War II. Garfield enlisted his friend BETTE DAVIS as president of the organization. Using her considerable clout, Davis helped raise money, materials, and manpower needed for the patriotic project. The canteen--a renovated livery stable and theater space at 1451 Cahuenga Blvd.--opened with great fanfare in October 1942. During its run, the canteen served up to 3,000 servicemen every night--the only admission price, their uniforms. Big bands and comedy acts entertained the troops; everything from cigarettes, milk, coffee, sandwiches and cake were free for the asking. The canteen was also a place to see the stars. Over 6,000 actors and entertainment industry workers volunteered their time. Actresses such as HEDY LAMARR, OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND and MARLENE DIETRICH danced with the servicemen and helped out in the kitchen; actors such as FRED MACMURRY, SPENCER TRACY, and BASIL RATHBONE served as busboys. The Hollywood Canteen operated continuously until November 22, 1945. When all was said and done, the Hollywood community fed and entertained nearly 4 million soldiers.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Hey! Ho! Let's Go!: The Ramones on Film

With Johnny Ramones' health issues making news recently, I thought it would be good to revisit a couple of Ramones films. In 1979, the band blasted onto the screen in Roger Corman's great ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Filled with a joyful mix of silliness and rebellion, the film follows your Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) as she tries to make her way to a Ramones concert while trying to outwit evil principal Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), who has banned rock 'n' roll music from the school. The centerpiece of the film is a 20-minute Ramones concert, featuring such classics as "Lobotomy" and "Blitzkrieg Bop", later coming to an explosive end when the teenagers and the Ramones take over the school. ROLLING STONE magazine recently listed the film among the top 10 of rock 'n' roll movies ever made. I agree--it's pure fun.

In 2003, Extinkt Films released HEY! IS DEE DEE HOME?, a small documentary on the Ramones' punk icon bassist. This film happened as an afterthought. The director, Lech Kowalski, made a documentary on seminal punk rocker Johnny Thunders called BORN TO LOSE: THE LAST ROCK & ROLL MOVIE (1999), in which Dee Dee participated. After Dee Dee's death in 2002, Kowalski culled through his footage and decided he had enough material to make a stand-alone piece. In the film, Dee Dee is shown in a sit-down interview format--he tells a lot of drug stories and talks a lot about Johnny Thunders (naturally). Essentially, the doc gives a glimpse of Dee Dee--in his own words--but does not give a full picture of his life and work.

Speaking of Johnny Thunders, I recently finished an excellent biography on the New York Doll and Heartbreaker called JOHNNY THUNDERS: IN COLD BLOOD by Nina Antonia. This exceptionally written book chronicles the life and tragic end of Thunders and gives a very vivid account of the punk era in both New York and Europe. As a bonus, the book comes with a DVD featuring a late 1980s concert, clips of a film Thunders made in Europe, along with interviews. If you are interested in this scene, I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Quote: On the Nature of Film Studios

From PRATER VIOLET, a 1945 novel by Chistopher Isherwood, who spent a brief period of time as a Hollywood writer:

"You see, the film studio...is really the palace of the sixteenth century. There one sees what Shakespeare saw: the absolute power of the tyrant, the courtiers, the flatterers, the jesters, the cunningly ambitious intriguers. There are fantastically beautiful women, there are incompetent favorites. There are great men who are suddenly disgraced. There is the most insane extravagance, and unexpected parsimony over a few pence. There is enormous splendor which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery. There are vast schemes, abandoned because of some caprice. There are secrets which everybody knows and no one speaks of. There are even two or three honest advisers. These are the court fools, who speak the deepest wisdom in puns, lest they should be taken seriously. They grimace, and tear their hair privately, and weep."

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Movie Rentals, Weeks of 6/30 and 7/5/2004

I haven't watched a lot of movies over the last tow weeks due to work and the holiday, but here is a run down of my recent rentals:

STARSKY & HUTCH (1975-76) Season 1, discs, 4 and 5. I finished out season one of this gloriously cheesy '70s cop show. In recent episodes, Starsky nearly dies from a slow acting poison; Hutch gets into the ring with professional wrestlers; and Huggy Bear is super fly as ever! My one beef with this series is that, in the beginning, Huggy owned a restaurant and bar, but sometime mid season he leaves it behind to be an "entrepreneur". This means that the character started selling glow in the dark crucifixes on street corners, or running a rat racing gambling operation (I kid you not) in an abandoned warehouse. I'm sure this change was done by the writers to give him more "street cred", but I think it watered Huggy down into a stereotype. I guess a black man owning a bar was a little too much in Aaron Spelling land at that time.....

DEMONLOVER (2002). This is a French film with an international cast, including Connie Nielsen (GLADIATOR), Chloe Sevigny (LAST DAYS OF DISCO), and Gina Gershon (SHOWGIRLS). The film was SUPPOSED to be a stylish corporate espionage thriller set in the internet adult entertainment industry, but the plot is so convoluted and executed so poorly, that I struggled to even finish the film.

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983). I had such high hopes for this film, based on a Ray Bradbury novel. I love carnival stories, and what attracts me to them are their surrealness, their freakiness, if you will. There's not a lot of that here. The film is basically a touching story about a father and son against the backdrop of a "sinister" carnival that comes into their idyllic town. I put sinister in quotes because this is a Disney film--so the "horror" that Netflix promised me is very watered down. Bradbury wrote the script himself, but I'm sure (as in most cases) the book is ten times better. Maybe I'm just viewing the film through jaded eyes. The carnival stories I like are more along the lines of Todd Browning's FREAKS (1932) or even HBO's recent series CARNIVALE.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Flicker and the "Persistence of Vision"

I named my blog "Flicker" because it is an old slang word for a movie. The term itself dates from the early silent era, when films were projected at a rate of 16 frames per second. This slow rate (today's sound projectors run at 24 frames/second) renders the human eye unable to perceive a continuous image. The illusion of a steady image and continuous brightness inside a movie theater is a phenomenon known as "persistence of vision", which allows the eye to interpret a rapid succession of light and dark as even illumination. When the frequency of light and dark is too slow to create a "persistence of vision", a flickering effect results--thus the slang "flickers" (or "flicks") was born.

Friday, July 02, 2004

R.I.P. Marlon Brando

The New York Times > Movies > Marlon Brando, Oscar Winning Actor, Is Dead at 80