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!

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I suppose at some point I must have known more about the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker other than the broad outlines I remember: wildly popular televangelists who fell from grace in a financial scandal. Tip of the iceberg, it turns out.

The one specific I remembered was that I went cold-turkey on the blue eyeshadow. The new movie, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (trailer) is unexpectedly moving, as you realize many of the couple’s difficulties are the result of Tammy Faye’s own blind spots.

Televangelists are not top-of-mind for me, and my default opinion is that they’re all con men. Jessica Chastaine as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as Jim do such a good job that, OK, yes, they’re making money hand-over-fist, but there seems to be some sincere belief under all the trappings and on Tammy Faye’s side, real compassion for others. You can’t say the same for Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) or Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). In interviews, Chastain said that in her decade of research for the film, “I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true, and I just couldn’t find it.”

From humble beginnings in Michigan and Minnesota, the Jim and Tammy Faye built an empire on Jim’s preaching and Tammy Faye’s singing that included a satellite broadcasting network, their PTL (Praise the Lord) headquarters, and a theme park in South Carolina. These expansions and the couple’s lavish lifestyle were funded by an estimated $1 million a week in contributions from viewers of the PTL club worldwide.

The movie is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Massive credit needs to go to the make-up department and the magicians who made Chastain go from slender to zaftig as the film’s time passes. While televangelism may make many viewers shake their heads in puzzlement, and, while it trods a path well-worn by other biopics, the fantastic performances of the two principals make it well worth seeing. “this exceptionally well-cast version of Tammy Faye’s story does manage to tap into a cultural moment with reverberations we continue to feel today,” says Alissa Wilkinson of Vox.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 65%; audiences 88%.

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.

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!)

Hollywood at Play

Our latest movie theater experience was interrupted by a tornado warning coming in over patrons’ phones, but we sat tight and watched on. The theater hung onto its roof and electrical supply, and after the show, the real excitement began! Three recent films:

French Exit
This 2020 film is worth seeing to enjoy Michell Pfeiffer (trailer). Written by Patrick deWitt, based on his 2018 novel, the film was directed by Azazel Jacobs. It takes place mostly in Paris, which is fun too. There are humorous moments and quirky characters, but on the whole, it’s OK, not great.

Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a high-living Manhattan widow, suddenly broke. Before creditors can descend, she sells all her possessions and moves with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to Paris to live rent-free in the apartment of a long-time friend. One possession she takes with her is her black cat Frankie, who she believes is possessed by the spirit of her late, unlamented husband. When Frankie runs away, much as she loathed him, she wants him back.

While many of the characters who people Frances’s life are interesting, especially the irrepressible Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), Malcolm is totally without agency. Or any demonstrated skills or intellect to bring to their increasingly precarious and complicated lives.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 63%; audiences: 43%.

The Little Things
This California crime thriller was written and directed by John Lee Hancock (trailer). Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) was a brilliant LAPD detective who had a meltdown a couple of years back and lost his job. Now he’s an all-purpose deputy in rural Kern County. Sent to LA to retrieve a bit of evidence for a case in the rural county, he meets Jim Baxter (Remi Malek), his slick young replacement.

A woman’s body has been found, and Deacon is invited to accompany Baxter to examine the crime scene. It bears a striking resemblance to the work of a serial killer he’d been tracking before his exile. The parallels haunt him, and he cannot stop investigating the new crime, whether his help is wanted or not.

That seems far-fetched to me, but it’s the premise of the film, so you have to swallow it and go on, at which point you encounter Deacon and Baxter’s prime suspect, Albert Sparma (played masterfully by Jared Leto). You can’t fault the acting in this one. It’s the story that should be stronger.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 45%; audiences: 67%.

The Green Knight
I expected to really like this epic fantasy, based on the Arthurian legend, after the great reviews it received, plus the captivating Dev Patel starring as Sir Gawain. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer). Alas, I found it slow and kinda dull. What did I miss? If Gawain goes up against the Green Knight, he’ll pass the tests of chivalry, and prove his worthiness to be a knight, but, on the downside, he’ll be dead. No? Apparently, the ending is purposefully ambiguous, as were my feelings about the film. Scenery was great and some nice cinematic effects. I did like the Punch-and-Judys and the fox who adopted Gawain until it started to talk (not so much that it talked, but what it said).

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 49%.

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.

Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

The Truffle Hunters

Some quirky films came out this past year, despite the pandemic, and we’ve enjoyed watching them at home or, finally—nirvana!—in an actual movie house.

The Truffle Hunters offers a little slice of life about people who live totally different lives than you do (guaranteed). In the beautifully scenic Piedmont area of Italy, the documentary-makers, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, found a group of aging men who take their dogs into the woods every day searching for truffles (trailer). Apparently, even though truffles are rare, it’s a living, especially if you know the good spots.

People who spend so much time alone are liable to get a little quirky, and, yes, they are. Their dogs are their children, spouses, best friends. One of the best moments is when the filmmakers attached a camera to a dog’s head, and you get to see the world in caninevision. The bouncing along, the snuffling leaves, the distractions left and right. Best of all is when the dog stops to chase his tail and the trees overhead whip around dizzingly. The whole audience laughed.

Roger Ebert’s review was too snarky by half for such an inoffensive movie. Nevertheless, the film left me a little worried. Most of these men can’t do this for many more years, even though the active outdoor life has helped get them into their 80s and even 90s. So where will future truffles come from? It will be sad if the truffle poachers who are trying to move in (they’ve even poisoned some dogs) inherit this livelihood. And, the middlemen who buy as cheaply as possible and sell for exorbitant profits currently keep it a marginalized business.

If you need a big shot of adrenaline, this is not your film. After all the disruptions of the last year, it’s calming to spend some time in the woods—no ticks!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 77%–probably because of that adrenaline factor.

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.