Paul Newman – Director

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)

paul newman directingI might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.

Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly  uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.

If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.

Rachel-Rachel-WoodwardThe movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

Felliniesque

Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”

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Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.

Fellini-Directing

American Terror Story

Shirley Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965) – Writer

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I’m still shaking my head over the memory of public school officials in my home state of Indiana showing us a well-done educational film adapted from Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery (1948). I’m fairly certain those estimable stewards of the American Way thought it was about “Comm’nists” and how bad things would get if “Roosha” took over.

They had no idea it was about them.

I’m also fairly certain another Hoosier native, Robert Wise, knew what Jackson’s story was about. And he made a great movie out of Jackson’s best novel, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Wise’s film is called The Haunting (1963), it’s in black and white, and it stars Julie Harris as the fragile main protagonist. The Haunting relies on anticipation and suggestion (i.e, terror rather than horror) to achieve its effects and Martin Scorsese – among others, including me – thinks it’s the scariest movie ever made.

If you go in expecting that, of course, you’ll be disappointed. So forget we said anything and rent or stream it some windy night. Read the book first. And, whatever you do, skip the 1999 remake directed by Jan de Bont. Ugh.

Ozu’s People: Us

Yasujirō Ozu (小津 安二郎, 12 December 1903 – 12 December 1963)

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If you’re ever tempted to believe that we humans are not all alike … that Grandma’s cooking, the amount of melanin in your skin, your religion or country of origin, the presence or absence of an epicanthic fold makes a big difference  … spend a weekend watching Yasujiro Ozu’s films.

Ozu is the best director you’ve probably never heard of. His movies weren’t released in the West until the early 1960s, shortly before his death, and then mostly confined to art houses. But Ozu is one of the three great directors of Japan’s “classic period” – the contemporary and peer of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa – and one of the greatest world directors of all time.

Ozu violates some of the conventions of Western filmmaking (e.g., not always following the “180-degree rule” and rarely cutting on action) but I find his signature style the simplest of the great directors. For the most part, Ozu uses the same shot (from a low still camera), the same lens (a slightly distortive 50mm), and straight cuts. He never uses transitions and, as introduction to or punctuation between scenes, he employs what are called “pillow shots,” brief glimpses of exterior detail from a train station clock to a cumulus cloud. This device of the pillow shot is adapted from Japanese poetry and Ozu used it to create a film poetry all his own.

Ozu’s subject matter, too, is simple and relatively fixed. Domestic dramas that, on the surface, seem relatively minor variations on the theme of family ties. Generations butt heads, someone marries or wants to marry, established unions strain and spouses stray, someone leaves for a better job in a bigger city, someone dies, and – in Ozu’s finest film, Tokyo Story (1953) – aging parents visit children from whom they’ve grown apart,

Watch these families in Yasijuro Ozu’s movies and tell me they’re not your family, the families of relatives and friends, people whose families you know. Watch two or three of his elegant, beautifully composed films – about the mess of daily life – and tell me we’re not all the same.

Here from Vienna, Fritz & Otto!

Born on This Date – December 5 – Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger

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No, these birthday twins (Lang in 1890 and Preminger in 1905) were not a Viennese comedy duo, but they were Austria’s best exports since schnitzel. And two of the greatest film directors of all time.

They must have met in Hollywood – or even back in Vienna – at some point, but I have no idea when or how and it’s a good bet they weren’t the best of friends and didn’t celebrate their birthdays together. For one thing, that would be too much ego for one room.

Each of these guys deserves a book … and both have inspired several … so I’ll just post a still from my favorite films by each: Fritz Lang’s M (1931, starring the phenomenal Peter Lorre in the first serial killer movie and still the best) and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959, possibly the best courtroom drama ever and the first to realistically depict the motives of all the people involved in a trial).

I wish I could see both tonight – in a double bill at a great revival house – and sing “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” while the final credits roll.

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