Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A century of Charles Chaplin

Before movies had voices, they did two things particularly well: Dramatic stars displayed operatic passions to make you weep, and comedians created physical bits to make you laugh. The most brilliant comic was Charles Chaplin, who celebrates his 100th anniversary onscreen this year. (In fact, the 125th anniversary of his birth was last week: April 16.)

Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and especially stone-faced Buster Keaton were all extraordinary in their ways. But only Chaplin balanced pathos and humor so adroitly, as we see in this clip from "The Gold Rush:"



Some folks think Chaplin's masterpiece is "City Lights," in which he befriends a blind flower girl without telling her he's a penniless tramp. When he's befriended in turn by an eccentric millionaire, he's able to help the girl financially. Here's a scene of the two men sharing an evening out. (With Russian subtitles, yet!)



Chaplin was the first great auteur, as the French would say, in Hollywood: He not only co-wrote, directed, co-edited and produced "City Lights" -- as well as starring in it, of course -- but he wrote the music, too. The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will play his score Friday and Saturday nights at Belk Theater at 8 p.m., while the film is being shown. Sam Shapiro of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library will lecture at 7, and UNC Charlotte students will give Chaplin-inspired acting demonstrations at 7:30.

Unlike the other great silent comedians, Chaplin didn't lose his career when he found his voice. The cruelly funny "The Great Dictator," philosophically sardonic "Monsieur Verdoux" and touching (if slightly hokey) "Limelight" all make their effects with spoken dialogue as well as physical bits.

He directed his last movie ("A Countess From Hong Kong") at 77. It came five years after Chaplin won an honorary Oscar for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of the century." That says it all.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Five world masterpieces I'm never gonna read

The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez last week reminded me that the Nobel Prize winner is in that small but select group of authors whose greatest works I don't expect to finish. I've read a collection of his short stories and two of his short novels, but long-form Marquez doesn't work for me. I have tried three times to force my way into "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and I would need 100 years of solitude to complete it.

Yet he's not even close to the Forbidden Zone for this college English major. Nothing short of a kidnapper threatening my wife would make me pick up these five books again:

 
Beloved teacher Reynolds Price devoted an entire course to John Milton's epic "Paradise Lost" at Duke University; I didn't take it, but friends called it revelatory. Maybe I needed that kind of guidance to appreciate the book-length poem, because Milton remains the only one among the Holy Trio of early English authors I can't penetrate. Chaucer and Shakespeare, I love. Milton, I don't.
 
 
Yes, that's a photo of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce's "Ulysses." Or maybe just staring at it, as I did on my three attempts to get past page 50. I've never taken to books that required endless footnotes or explanations of countless references. But I consider "The Dead" to be the most moving collection of short stories in the English language, so I took my shots at Joyce's titanic novel. It defeated me every time.
 
 
I carried an unabridged copy of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" on a trip to Iceland, figuring I could get through all 1400 pages if I read a mere 100 pages a night. A cinch, yeah? Once the sun went down in tiny towns outside Reykjavik, there was nothing to do but read. I'd enjoyed "Anna Karenina," but I got lost in this much vaster compendium of characters and situations. Finally, in desperation, I started to skip around. So maybe I have finished "War and Peace," but I've actually read about half of it.
 
 
I read "Swann's Way" at the urging of college friends and congratulated myself for (I think) grasping Marcel Proust's points about the elusiveness of memory, the decline of desire with age, regret for things that were unattainable or couldn't be retained, etc. Then I realized I had six more novels to go. I felt like a guy who'd completed a 5K and realized he was now expected to run back-to-back marathons. But I'd hit the wall.
 
 
I have enjoyed Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," which someone once called "the Cliff's Notes version of 'Faust'." But multiple attempts to scale Goethe's mountainous volumes have left me dazed and tired. The language seems impenetrable and repetitious; the concepts may be worth considering, but I've dozed through them in multiple forms: a translation from the German original, Schumann's opera/oratorio "Scenes from Goethe's 'Faust'," Mahler's Eighth Symphony, you name it. I could handle the first, shorter book of the two. But the second -- well, if the Devil snatches me down to Hell, I'll have time to read it there.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Great movies of 1939 -- "Ninotchka"

"Ninotchka" was marketed with the tagline "Garbo laughs!" Greta Garbo had been one of Hollywood's tragedy queens for more than a decade when she earned her fourth and final Oscar nomination in the title role of this Ernst Lubitsch comedy. Here's the scene that provided that famous moment:



Director Lubitsch, a German emigre and three-time Oscar nominee himself), made two films about Europe during World War II: "Ninotchka" and "To Be or Not To Be." His urbane comedies often dealt with serious subjects in a witty way, whether lampooning Hitler in "To Be Or Not To Be" or mocking Soviet totalitarianism in "Ninotchka."

Garbo plays Ivanovna Yakushova, who has been sent to Paris to supervise the sale of jewelry the Soviet government has confiscated from murdered or imprisoned citizens. The first three men sent over to do that job have been corrupted by Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who's trying to get hold of the jewels himself for a duchess.

The three envoys know they're in trouble, and they try to smooth things over when they meet her. "How are things in Moscow, comrade?" one inquires. "The last mass trials were a great success," replies the stone-faced Ninotchka. "There are going to be fewer but better Russians." (Hmmmm...just like the newspaper business these days.)

Capitalism triumphs, of course. So does love. The film proved so popular it was turned into the Broadway musical "Silk Stockings" 16 years later, with Hildegarde Neff as the commissar and Don Ameche as the charmer. (Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire took the roles in the 1957 film.) Cole Porter wrote the score, which included "All of You." That number looks like this:



Neither movie appealed to the Soviet Union, of course. "Ninotchka" did well at boxoffices across Europe, but it was banned in the USSR; a proposed revival late in World War II was allegedly suppressed on the grounds that the Soviet Union was now our ally. Those Commies never did laugh much.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Three things people forget about Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney's death Sunday triggered many tributes, including one in The Observer. Inexplicably, his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Black Stallion" was not listed as one of his five best. Each to his taste, I guess. Here's a bit of my favorite Rooney performance: "The Comedian," a Playhouse 90 live TV broadcast from 1957 about an egomaniacal comic.



The obits mentioned his youthful stardom, his multiple marriages, his small size and large ego. But three things seemed to be overlooked.

First, you could never really appreciate him until you saw him in person. He came to Charlotte in the early 1980s to do the live show "Sugar Babies," a tribute to vaudeville, and his outsized personality filled Ovens Auditorium. He tore up the stage -- singing, dancing, blasting jokes at top speed -- with the energy of a guy half his age. (He'd have been in his early 60s.) Even Ann Miller, no shrinking violet, paled next to him.

Second, we underestimate his popularity. According to annual polls in Quigley's Motion Picture Almanac, which asks theater exhibitors to report box-office grosses, Rooney was the number one star in America in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Only eight actors in history have topped the charts more then Rooney -- and he did it during the years when "Gone With the Wind" set box-office records around the world!

Third, everyone remarks on his eight marriages, including his first to Smithville's Ava Gardner. But hardly anyone acknowledges that his eighth, to a woman 18 years his junior, seems to have made both of them happy. He had married actress Jan Rooney just a few years before I interviewed him during the "Sugar Babies" tour. "I've made a lot of mistakes with women, but this one is finally the right one," he said. Their 35-year union ended with his death, so I expect that was true.



Friday, April 4, 2014

Entertainment Weekly falls deeper into the toilet

Did you see that Entertainment Weekly laid off Owen Gleiberman, the film critic who has been with the magazine since it began in 1990? He was part of a seven-person firing this week that further reduced the magazine's payroll, expertise and importance to serious readers. Lisa Schwartzbaum, perhaps smelling the napalm in the air, took a buyout in February. That means Chris Nashawaty will be the only staff movie critic.


This news comes on the heels of an announcement that EW will be accepting contributions for its "Community" section -- presumably including reviews -- that will be edited but not compensated. As Monty Python once noted, the writers' reward will be "permission to come to work, sir!" 

I'm not saying that only veteran critics know what they're talking about, or that only writers who can demand a salary are reliable. (Though by and large, they tend to be better informed, as it's their business to be. There's a reason people pay them.)

But arts criticism is like financial advice: Everyone has an opinion about how you should handle your money, and the Internet is full of anonymous stock tips and folks telling you what to do with Treasury securities and long-term bonds. Some are experienced; some are not. Some have agendas they want you to follow; some do not. Some have a sense of history; some do not.

The secret with both fields (and many others) is to find someone whose take on the subject aligns with yours. That doesn't mean someone whose taste mirrors yours, though it could do so. In criticism, it means someone who thinks about movies in the same way and has the same criteria you do. Find two or three such people and stick with them.

Whether I agreed with Gleiberman or not on a particular film, I respected his knowledge and welcomed his observations. The industry will be a poorer place without him and the many folks like him who are being cut loose every month by media corporations.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

N.C.-made indie 'Alien Abduction' scores a coup!

Independent filmmaking is like a state lottery: Someone wins a prize just often enough to keep encouraging all the hopefuls who never get anywhere. This month, first-time director Matty Beckerman and first-time writer Robert Lewis grabbed the brass ring with a little movie shot in Burke, Avery and Watauga counties.

IFC Films is distributing "Alien Abduction," which opens Friday at Ayrsley Grand Cinemas in Charlotte and elsewhere around the country. The low-budget film "explains" the source of the Brown Mountain Lights, which have been attributed in real life to anything from swamp gas to Air Force flyovers. In this case, aliens have been dropping in on North Carolinians for decades, as a family vacationing in Pisgah National Forest learns to its dismay. Here's a sample:


The movie lacks narrative imagination. The plot is thin as a fingernail. We never find out whether the aliens are studying us, eating us or kicking us around for amusement. (They're the slender, almond-eyed, malevolent extraterrestrials we've seen many times.) Human characters have little personality. The "We're out of gas in the deep woods and unable to escape" motif made me smile.

At the same time, the filmmakers do one thing extremely well: They use quick cuts, fragments of sound and snippets of video to convey the confused terror these humans feel. Their budget may be limited, but their ability to hint at horror without actually filming it is not.

Fifteen years have passed since "The Blair Witch Project" revived the found-footage genre memorably. Like that film, "Alien Abduction" purports to be made up of video discovered by authorities near the spot where the victims disappeared. The basic conceit doesn't work as well here, because the footage is shot by an autistic boy who uses a video camera as a security blanket (and who doesn't behave like any autistic person I have met or heard about).

But Beckerman has a fine sense of when to speed up or slow down, how much or how little to reveal to make us squirm. Though the 83-minute film consists of many long chases in semi-darkness, the director maintains a consistent sense of unease. An amusing coda leaves us with one final jolt (Yes!) and the possibility of a sequel (Please, no!) What will mainly happen, I suspect, is that filmmakers with equally little money but far less of an idea how to pace a movie will try for that same brass ring -- but few will grasp it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

New Johnny Cash album (and others not to miss)

Thirty years ago, when Johnny Cash had hit bottom at Columbia Records after a 26-year association, he recorded a series of songs the label decided not to release. Maybe the slick production by Billy Sherrill didn't suit the Nashville of the time. Maybe they didn't think Cash was marketable any more. So we've waited until now for the release of "Out Among the Stars." It's not Cash's best work, but it's well worth owning, and its high points -- including the title song by Adam Mitchell -- have the world-weary honesty that ranks with the best Cash could do. (His version of "Stars" outstrips even Waylon Jennings', and that's saying something.)



The Columbia Legacy album remains a grab bag of comedy ("If I Told You Who It Was," about a one-night stand), outlaw songs ("I Drove Her Out of My Mind," a double-entendre number about a despondent ex-boyfriend), gospel ("I Came to Believe") ) and duets with June Carter Cash ("Baby Ride Easy") and Jennings ("I'm Movin' On"). The self-deflating "She Used To Love Me a Lot" gets a traditional rendering and a newer, spooky version produced by Elvis Costello. The musicians included the cream of the country crop back then: Jerry Douglas on dobro, Pig Robbins on piano, Marty Stuart on mandolin, Pete Drake on steel guitar. Cash completists MUST have it, but every Cash fan should give it a hearing.

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" will probably tour someday, but why wait until then to enjoy it? In fact, the lyrics and music by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak -- which border at times on the sardonic wit of Gilbert and Sullivan -- will be easier to enjoy with the booklet that accompanies the Ghostlight Records release in your hands. Here's a sample:




Like the movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets," the writers have adapted the Roy Horniman novel about a social climber who realizes he can become an earl if he murders eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Bryce Pinkham makes the homicidal hero amiable (and sings well), and protean Jefferson Mays somehow creates eight different characters. (He half-sings and half-talks his numbers, but that works in this case.) The female leads, naughty Lisa O'Hare and sweet Lauren Worsham, round out a satisfying main cast.

You couldn't quite call Alison Fraser's "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" a one-woman show. Though it has linking dialogue from his plays, much of that from "A Streetcar Named Desire," creator David Kaplan and singer/speaker Fraser concentrate on songs quoted or mentioned in Williams' work, from the most famous scripts ("It's Only a Paper Moon" from "Streetcar") to the most obscure (Noel Coward's "The Party's Over Now," from "Clothes for a Summer Hotel").




The album from that show, also on Ghostlight, presents us with a woman on her last emotional legs. She has had too much to drink, perhaps, and certainly too little to cling to in life. Most of the songs deal with lost love, including the superb "Sophisticated Lady" shown in this video, but they're varied enough to take us though a series of moods. Fraser (who's currently touring America as Madame Morrible in "Wicked") can do everything but yodel, though she tries that on Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose." Pianist Allison Leyton-Brown and a small jazz ensemble provide warm, subtle accompaniment.

"Warm" and "subtle" are also apt adjectives for the new album of French songs by baritone Thomas Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida. "The Good Song" takes its title from a cycle by Gabriel Faure that fills up about half of the album; I'm more partial to Francis Poulenc's "Chanson Gaillardes," with their rudely funny lyrics from anonymous 17th-century texts. Here's a sample of his voice from one of his previous albums, both of which were devoted to Schubert's songs:




Like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of his idols, Meglioranza has a light, beautiful voice that can be plaintive (as in Debussy's "Fetes Galantes" on "The Good Song") or funny or touching. Uchida accompanies him with a supple and winning style, never receding into the background or overshadowing the singer. If you like classical chansons and lieder, this is a team to remember.