Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

Hitchcock: Howdunit

If you’re like me, it was years after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho before you could take a shower without thinking of That Scene. I have a walk-in shower now, and I can always see who’s coming!

Film historian Max Alvarez in conjunction with New Plaza Cinema presented a Zoom program on Hitchcock last week that toured his audience through memorable moments from many of the director’s 57 feature films. We knew whodunit—Hitchcock—this was a howdunit.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Americans tend to pick films based on the actors. Hitchcock was one of the rare directors in Hollywood history who was himself a draw, like the Coen Brothers or Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino today.

Hitch’s fame did constrain the types of movies he could make without violating public expectation, however. His films tended toward the charismatic villain, the woman in peril, and a big conspiracy. The scripts came from his (sometimes brief) collaborations with some of the leading writers of the day: Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), and many others.

Even though he made so many memorable movies, what catapulted him into prominence in the 1950s was the popularity of his television programs. And he was shameless about using them to promote his films.

Hitchcock’s steps in making the memorable movie Vertigo started with the “treatment,” eight to ten typed pages, resembling a short story, which described what happens in detail, beginning to end. After showing us the initial page, Alvarez showed the beginning of the shooting script. Hitchcock liked to have every camera angle and shot planned out in advance—close-up, medium shot, panorama, whatever. Next Alvarez showed the storyboards that a graphic artist created from the shooting script. They were a sort of (wordless) comic book version, showing the action in every shot. Finally, he showed the way the same scene looked in the final film, which in the theater looked so natural (of course he’d hang onto the gutter that way), but replicated the previous, meticulously planned steps almost exactly.

But even the best laid plans can fall prey to reality, and Hitch would change scenes and shots that didn’t turn out well or as expected. Occasionally, he’d fly by the seat of his pants—like the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Also, he loved in-camera special effect. An example is the famous “purple dress” scene from Topaz, in which unseen stage hands pulled strings so that the character’s dress fanned out around her as she fell.

Alvarez attributes Hitch’s visual mastery to the large body of work he did in the silent film industry, taking on all kinds of jobs, up to the point when, in his 20s, he was allowed to direct. For him, the visuals told the story, and he always made sure there was a story to tell.

By the way, Hitch’s own favorite film was 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Watch Shadow of a Doubt.

Read one great director interviewing another in the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut from Amazon.

Read Richard Brody’s “The Greatness of ‘Psycho’” in The New Yorker, covering the films about Hitchcock.

It’s Shorts Season!

No, not the kind that guy’s wearing!

The short films nominated for Oscars are on view via various streaming outlets. We watched the five “live action” nominees over the weekend and while, year after year, all the films aren’t necessarily funny or uplifting, they’re almost always interesting.

Consciously or unconsciously, the creative teams behind this year’s nominees must have been immersed in the George Floyd aftermath, because four of the five deal with a character’s interaction with uniformed authorities–police, border guards, corrections officers, most of whom are frustratingly intransigent. The fifth nominee lacks cops, but deals with building understanding between people with totally different backgrounds.

“The Present” by Farah Nabulsi documents the struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, where even the simplest act leads to a morass of difficulties. Performances were good, but the story is predictable. (Tastes differ. IndieWire liked this one best.)

In “White Eye,” an Eritrean immigrant buys a used bicycle, which turns out to have been stolen. The bike’s owner wants it back. The police know only one way to react. Nice twist at the end.

“Feeling Through” involves a young, homeless black man who encounters a blind and deaf white man and helps him across the street. Produced by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, it’s a feel-good movie that shows the blossoming of an act of kindness.

“Two Distant Strangers” is an urban Groundhog Day with guns. A young black man repeatedly dreams about (foresees?) a dangerous confrontation with an older white cop. In any version of reality, can this ever turn out OK?

In “The Letter Room,” Oscar Isaac plays Richard, a surprisingly genial corrections officer who screens prisoner mail. (The film was written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind.) One of the death-row inmates receives numerous steamy letters from his girlfriend, and another begs Richard to make sure his daughter’s letters haven’t been lost in the system. Two nice reversals at the end.

Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

Now THAT Was Good!

Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:

Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)

North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)

The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)

The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)

The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)

Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)

Movie Titles as Mood Creators

Years ago, because I arrived late for a showing of The Three Musketeers, I missed the opening credits. I wanted to see them, though, so when the film ended I stayed in my seat. They were so good, I watched the film a second time. (As a result, I learned what every stage actor knows: No two audiences are alike. Not one laugh was in the same place the second time around!)

Last Friday, we watched an entertaining Zoom program on “The Art of Film Titles,” presented by genial film historian, critic, and mega-fan Max Alvarez, sponsored by New Plaza Cinema in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. It was a fun excursion through the ways in which film titles have evolved over the years and how effective they can be in establishing a film’s mood and tone.

A good example is the beautiful and compelling main title sequence from the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific, created by Imaginary Forces. Combined with the score by Hans Zimmer, you learn—and feel—a lot before the story even begins. Likewise, M & Co NY’s titles for Silence of the Lambs show FBI agent Clarice Starling training alone on a foggy and demanding obstacle course—a metaphor for what she will face (also alone) and the grit she will need when she is assigned to interview Hannibal Lector. A gentler example is the sensuous title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass for the 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. She cut the sequence to the music of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which opens the film. Elmer Bernstein, who was slated to score the titles, said the Faust was so perfect, “keep it!”

In the early days of film, the opening title was a simple affair—one or two static slides, with a lot of facts crammed in. The slide for the 1931 Academy-Award-winning Bad Girl above,, for example, includes not just the film title, but the director (Borzage), the studio (Fox), and the leading cast members. Nothing about it hints what’s coming or how audience members should feel about it. So much data, no information.

Up until the 1990s, film titles and animations were hand-produced. Today, of course, they are mostly computer-generated. That doesn’t automatically mean they are more complex. Alvarez cited one of the masters of film title creation, Kyle Cooper, who has produced more than 350 visual effects and main title sequences. He created his jarring, multi-layered titles for the 1995 movie Se7en without computers, in what Alvarez dubs “serial killer font,” complete with real scratches on the film. You can revisit a great many film title sequences at Cooper’s website, The Art of the Title. You may even find some titles you liked better than the actual movie. I hate when that happens!

How Was That Movie?

popcorn

Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.

Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.

What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.

Did they achieve it? Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.

Was it worth doing? Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.

Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.