Monday, February 28, 2011

The Big Screen in The Sky

We here at Film Gab are sad to report that today at age 89, the lovely Jane Russell passed away. In 1943 she made her screen debut in Howard Hughes' The Outlaw- and movie advertising was never the same again. Basing the marketing around Russell's decolletage, Hughes gave the Hayes Office an embolism with his racy ads for a Western that without Russell would have been... well flat. Russell may have been blessed with a fine chassis, but she really was much more than that. She was smart, sassy and held a confidence that did not depend solely on her looks. In an era where beautiful women always seemed to be seeking male approval, Russell portrayed a woman who didn't seem to care. Men could look, but if they wanted to touch, they had to play by her rules. In Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she played the best friend to Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei Lee. Another actress might have been swept under the cinematic rug in the wake of Monroe's fresh sexuality, but Russell held her own as the more cynical, smart-mouth brunette without becoming a mannish counterpoint. She was as feminine and beautiful as Monroe, and the two made a delightful pairing in a film that, at least for one gay Midwestern teen, opened up a whole new world of cinema. Here's hoping Saint Peter has an angel-sized cross-your-heart bra.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gab for the Border!

Werth: Hola, Wise!

Wise: Hola, Werth. Why are you wearing a sombrero?

Werth: Because, dear film friend, I want to go South of the Border!

Wise: Did you OD on your Lupe Velez pills again?

Werth: No. Tuesday was National Margarita Day so I’m dreaming of Mexico—land of endless beaches, shady palms, and—

Wise: —bottomless drinks.

Werth: —bottomless cheap drinks.

Wise: You know, when I hear “Mexico” and “bottomless” in the same sentence, I’m usually hoping that it refers to nachos—

Werth: No comment.

Wise: —but lately I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite movies from Mexico that features bottomless despair.  

Werth: I take it then you are not going to be talking about Dolores del Rio doing the samba on the wing of a bi-plane.  

Wise: The film’s called Silent Light, or Stellet Licht, directed by Carlos Reygadas, and it stars Cornelio Wall as Johan a Mennonite farmer in Northern Mexico trapped between the wife and children he loves and the woman he feels is a spiritual gift from God.  He agonizes over what he’s going to do, discussing the situation with both his father and his steadfast wife.  Most of the cast members are non-professional actors and they speak a dialect of German particular to the Amish and Mennonite emigres who came to North America for religious freedom and continue to eschew most of the technological advances of the 20th century.  To Reygadas, this lack of training is an asset because he doesn’t have to contend with any actor-y mannerisms.  Instead he allows the camera to linger on faces, allowing the scenes to build toward an emotional crescendo.  

Werth: Subtle acting, visual storytelling.  I’m in! Tell me more.

Wise: As you can probably guess from the title, Reygadas uses light to either illuminate his characters or to shroud them in darkness.  There’s an amazing scene of Johan and his family bathing in a stream.  There’s not much dialogue, but the way Reygadas captures the sun’s rays shimmering on the water and the sound of the children laughing is simply heartbreaking.  Later, in a scene between Johan and his mistress, the light is amber and golden and also heartbreaking because the audience realizes just how crushing it would be for Johan to surrender either.  

It’s a wrenching examination of a man as he struggles to decide whether this other woman is a wicked temptation or a boon from heaven destined to deepen his faith.  I know it sounds like the kind of pompous self-torture typical to a certain breed of art house flick, but Silent Light is truly mesmerizing from the opening shot of the mute night sky receding to reveal the cacophonous day to the final shot of the inky twilight shrouding the world in silence again.  

Werth: I think you’re just partial to Mennonite fashion.

Wise: Sure, that has something to do with it, but I think anyone can recognize the agonies faced by these characters and can celebrate how they’re transformed.  

Werth: My favorite Mexican cinematic treat doesn’t have any Amish people, but it does have two donkeys. Picture it—1860’s French-ruled Mexico. A lone gunman in the desert comes across a group of nasty outlaws raping and pillaging a defenseless, naked lady. Knowing the effects of sun-damage on the skin, our hero dispatches these curs with his trusty gun, his trademark grimace and a world-weary bon mot. He saves the grateful girl, who, it turns out, is a sassy nun. Yes, I’m talking about 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. In this clever convergence of the Italian spaghetti western and a Hollywood battle-of-the-sexes, Eastwood and MacLaine take on Native Americans, banditos, the French army, one awful rattlesnake and each other.

Wise: You watched a rattlesnake scene?

Werth: Please, I can barely type the words without passing out. Popular director Don Siegel shot most of the film in Morelos, Mexico, so the set is designed by God. The arid, sparse desert is beautiful in its seemingly endless bleakness and the rough charm of Clint Eastwood’s iconic loner character feels like an outgrowth of the sagebrush and rocky buttes. MacLaine’s Sister Sara is a pale and beautiful misfit, horribly out of place in the middle of this godforsaken wasteland. But with her righteous piety and typical pluck, MacLaine proves she is an able match for Eastwood and the desert. 

Wise: Does she sing “I’m Still Here” to Clint and the cacti?

Werth: No. Apparently she didn’t feel much like singing because she didn’t get along with either Eastwood or Siegel. Nonetheless, she adds a touch of class and humor to a genre that was characterized by abject poverty, senseless violence and sparse dialogue.

Wise: What about the two mules?

Werth: They’re adorable plus the always brilliant Ennio Morricone gives them a musical theme that you won’t be able to stop eee-yaw-ing.

Wise: So does this mean we’re going on a Mexican vacation to visit the Amish and some donkeys?

Werth: Only if I get a large sun hat... and they get rid of all of the rattlesnakes.

Wise: I guess that means we’ll see everyone next week North of the Border for our Film Gab with Werth and Wise Post-Oscar Wrap-up!

Friday, February 18, 2011

They Go Together

Werth: Allo, Wise!

Wise: Same to ya’, Werth!

Werth: Did you happen to see that The Landmark Lowe’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City is showing three Bogey & Bacall movies Saturday and Sunday?

Wise: I did—right after you told me about it.

Werth: I love the Bogey & Bacall story. It’s so crammed full of Hollywood history and legend.

Wise: Unlike the Brangelina Saga.

Werth: Perhaps one day Hollywood couples like Brad & Angelina and Demi & Ashton will have a more epic feel to them, but until then, my favorite on-screen/off-screen romance is the Tracy & Hepburn coupling.

Wise: Good ol’ Spence and Kate.

Werth: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn starred together for the first time in 1942’s Woman of the Year. Their on-screen chemistry translated off-screen and soon the two began a love affair. The film was a success so future pairings of these two well-matched, accomplished actors were plotted by MGM to the cha-ching of Cupid's cash register. There was only one problem in promoting this new cinematic couple—

Wise: —Spence was married—

Werth: —to a Catholic with a daughter and a deaf son no less. Stories vary as to why Tracy never left his wife for Hepburn: powerful Catholic guilt, career ruination, Hepburn wasn’t the marrying kind. But whatever the reason, Tracy never divorced his wife. That meant Tracy and Hepburn had to try to pretend that they weren’t involved, but it seems their affair was one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood.

Wise: How could anyone see their on-screen sparks and not wonder if Spence was putting his Boys Town in Kate’s Stage Door?

Werth: Exactly. And the studios didn’t want to separate them. Hepburn and Tracy were coupled romantically nine times in classics like State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). It all helped create the impression that Tracy and Hepburn were a match made in MGM heaven, so if they happened to hook-up off the lot, as long as there were no sordid divorce proceedings, who cared?  It was kind of the best of both worlds. Nobody had to admit to a scandalous affair and the audience could live vicariously through the silver screen romance that Tracy and Hepburn’s illicit affections generated. It was a win-win.

Wise: Like when the McDonald’s McRib sandwich is on the dollar menu?

Werth: Most accounts have Hepburn and Tracy’s relationship cooling in the 1950’s to a very deep friendship. But when you watch their final film together, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), you get a sense of the love that these two clearly shared for one another. Tracy was gravely ill during the shooting and legend has it that Hepburn had to offer her salary as a guarantee to the producers that Tracy would actually finish the film. Hepburn and Tracy’s scenes in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are beautiful not just for the subtlety that both actors had developed over time, but for the ability of film to capture the last moments of the unmistakable bond between the two. 
Tracy’s final monologue in the film is powerful, touching and tragic as you watch Hepburn watching him, knowing that this very important man in her cinematic and personal life was dying. Seventeen days after filming ended, while making a pot of tea in Hepburn’s kitchen, Spencer Tracy died. Hepburn did not attend the funeral and claimed never to have watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, because it was too painful for her. It was the last chapter of a great romance on film and in real life.

Wise: Wow. It sounds like you’re having a sweet love hangover from last week’s Valentine’s posting.

Werth: That or someone slipped a little estrogen into my vodka tonic.

Wise: I plead the fifth.  Anyway, while you’re busy feeling verklempt, I want to talk about another cinematic couple that has fascinated millions on screen and off.  

Werth: Liz Taylor and Richard Burton?  

Wise: Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.  

Werth: Did we just get picked up by PBS?

Wise: I know this sounds like a joke, but I’m actually serious.  Kermit was a major character among the Muppet players, starting on a local kids show in the DC area, rising to stardom on Sesame Street, and becoming part of the cultural firmament with the premiere of The Muppet Show in 1976.  Miss Piggy began as a minor character on that show, but her role expanded as her insatiable twin desires for big time stardom and romance with Kermit made her an audience favorite.  

Werth: That explains why her her face changed so drastically from the first season. Not that Piggy would admit to having plastic surgery.

Wise: By the time of The Muppet Movie, her star had risen to a level almost equal to that of Kermit and their burgeoning romance allowed for some of the more tender moments amid all the slapstick, jokes and absurdity.  Of course their scenes had all those comic elements as well—I’m thinking specifically of a scene where Steve Martin plays their dimwitted waiter during a romantic dinner—but the romance allowed the movie to tap into a certain kind of overblown Hollywood romance that was ripe for Muppet parody.  One of the movie posters even copied the the famous one-sheet from Gone With the Wind featuring Rhett clutching Scarlett over the burning ashes of Atlanta.  

Werth: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a ham!  

Wise: Their screen chemistry reached its apotheosis, however, with The Great Muppet Caper.  Kermit, Fozzie the Bear and the Great Gonzo play three reporters hot on the trail of jewel thieves, only to mistake Miss Piggy for her fashion designer boss, Lady Holiday, played by Diana Rigg with witty and sexy aplomb.  The mistaken identities, snappy dialogue, and visual verve put this movie on par with some of the best screwball comedies of the 1930s, but what really makes it special are the amazing song and dance numbers performed by the Muppets.  
Kermit and Piggy share a dance duet in a swank London nightclub, a romantic bicycle ride together in a park, and, perhaps best of all, Miss Piggy stars in a water ballet while Kermit and Charles Grodin compete for her in song.  

Werth: Even at nine-years-old I knew Charles Grodin was a bad man.

Wise: The frog and the pig’s romance continues to this day, so hopefully when Jason Segel’s reboot of the Muppet franchise hits theaters later this year, we’ll get the chance to fall in love with them all over again.  

Werth: I think there’s one more sassily fun cinematic couple we should mention before we close.  

Wise: Statler & Waldorf?  

Werth: Haven’t you ever heard of self-promotion?  

Wise: Oh, right.  Check back next week for more pork from that witty and charming blogosphere twosome—Werth & Wise!”

Werth: Now I’m hungry for a McRib...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Joan, Joan on the Range

As if they were reading Werth's thoughts again, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is presenting the bitchiest western ever made, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, on Sunday 2/20. Guns! Fashion! Latent Lesbian Crushes! Joan Crawford puts on her boots and spurs and goes toe to toe with Mercedes McCambridge in one of the strangest oaters you'll ever see. Look for scenes where Joan's stand-in fills in for her because Joan loathed working with co-star Sterling Hayden.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More Big Screen in the Sky

This is turning out to be a sad week here at Film Gab. On Saturday we lost brilliant character actor Kenneth Mars to pancreatic cancer. Mars' film and television career spanned 46 years and included such great films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and What's Up Doc?, but he is best remembered for two roles in Mel Brooks comedies. In Brooks' first hit The Producers (1968) Mars had the ignoble task of making a disgruntled Nazi playwright funny- and he did it. His Franz Liebkind is a comedy landmark that is a masterwork of focus. He slept in his costume, giving co-star Gene Wilder the feeling that Mars might really be crazy. Mars proved that he was not just a one-Nazi wonder when he played the German constable, Inspector Kemp in Brooks' comic masterwork Young Frankenstein (1974). As the unintelligble police hawk with a fake, uncooperative arm, Mars once again created an indelible character. RIP Mr. Mars. It's time you had some of that spongecake und a little wine.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Marty's in Da' House!

Cinema auteur and classic film savant Martin Scorsese is making a one-night only appearance at Film Forum to introduce his film Public Speaking about the ever intriguing Fran Lebowitz. Tickets are sure to sell-out faster than you can say "You talkin' to me?", so get yours now for this unique opportunity to see one of our great directors speak about his work.

Big Screen in the Sky

Saturday marked the final curtain for one of the most beloved stars of stage, film and television.  Betty Garrett began her career hoofing, singing and telling jokes  on the Borscht Belt before joining Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater as an understudy and dancing with Martha Graham’s company at Carnegie Hall.  Securing a small role in Cole Porter’s Something for the Boys on Broadway, she filled in for the show’s star, Ethel Merman, when Merman fell ill for a week.  The exposure led to more roles on Broadway and, eventually, a contract with MGM where she played comic sidekicks in some of the studio’s splashiest musicals of the late 1940s, most notably as the wise-cracking taxi driver in On the Town.  Film roles dried up for Garrett and her husband Larry Parks during the McCarthy era, and for the next two decades they concentrated on summer stock and their cabaret act.  In the 1970s, Garrett’s career rebounded first with the role of an outspoken neighbor on All in the Family and then as the much-married landlady Edna Babish on Laverne & Shirley.  In the following decades, Garrett made frequent guest appearances on television while continuing her busy career on stage.  Rarely a leading lady, but always an electric presence, Garrett’s tough gal persona melted at the chance for love without ever losing her wits. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happy Gab-entine’s Day!

Werth: What up, Wise?

Wise: What up, Werth?

Werth: I’m just  putting the finishing touches on my Quaker Oats tub turned Valentine’s Day Card Box.

Wise: I like your use of red felt, crepe paper and pipe cleaners. Are you planning on spending Valentine’s Day in the second grade?

Werth: No. I just like getting back in touch with those special schoolyard feelings we all had about Valentine’s Day and love in general.

Wise: Do I smell a schoolyard romance edition of Film Gab?

Werth: The smeller’s the feller! Love was in the air—and at no time did it smell as sweet as when we were young, impressionable and trapped in high school. I think the cinematic high school love story that had the biggest impact on my youth was the 1988 cult classic Heathers.

Wise: I love Heathers—but would you call it a teen romance flick?

Werth: I would. I mean, sure it’s about the dog-kill-dog world of high school popularity, but at its core Heathers is a love story. Veronica (Winona Ryder) is the only non-Heather member of the dominant chick clique at Westerberg High. As the uber-bitchy girls devour the self-esteem of the bottom-feeders in the cafeteria through lunchtime polls and vicious note-passing, Veronica has second thoughts about belonging to such a Machiavellian girl’s club. Enter James Dean meets Jack Nicholson bad boy, Jason Dean (Christian Slater). J.D. turns Veronica’s dark-curled head with acts of heroism like standing up to jock bullies Ram and Kurt who serve-up homophobia like a bad dessert on a plastic lunchtray.

Wise: Bad dessert is such a disappointment.

Werth: Steady, Wise. So romance blooms between V & J.D.—despite the fact that J.D. already shows a predisposition towards violence. After “jokingly” poisoning head Heather, Heather Chandler (played with beautiful bitchery by the late Kim Walker) with a bottle of drain cleaner, J.D. convinces Veronica that it was an accident—but an accident with a happy ending.

Wise: Ding dong the Heather’s dead.

Werth: Right. Except that Shannon Doherty as Heather Duke quickly steps in to fill the queen bee void. J.D. arranges another “they deserve it” prank on Kurt and Ram, using an issue of Stud Puppy Magazine, a Joan Crawford postcard and a tell-tale bottle of mineral water to insinuate that they share more than just a bromance.

Wise: Sometimes it’s best to keep the Pellegrino wrapped in brown paper.

Werth: It’s all fun and games until the “stun bullets” that Veronica and J.D. shoot Kurt & Ram with turn out to be real, and Veronica now realizes that J.D.’s sense of social justice might be a tad extreme.

Wise: Now she realizes?

Werth: Like many good romantic heroines she’s torn between the thrill and fulfillment of what at first appeared to be true love, and doing the right thing. The right thing in this case being to thwart  J.D.’s ultimate plan to make a social statement by blowing up the gym during a pep rally. Heathers is masterful in its handling of adolescent angst about society and love not by depicting it realistically, but by dressing it in an 80’s palette of shoulder pads, hair scrunchies and stylized one-liners like “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” Heathers is a dark Valentine’s card, but Veronica and J.D. spoke so much more eloquently to me about the possibility of true love going horribly awry than Molly Ringwald and any of her suitors ever did. And trust me. With my dating history, I needed to know more about true love going horribly awry.

Wise: My movie about high school canoodling has a much lower bodycount: Wes Anderson’s Rushmore from 1998.

 Werth: Awwww, private school romance.

Wise: And there’s plenty, although it’s generally not of the boy meets girl variety.  Jason Schwartzman plays Max Fisher, a sophomore at prestigious Rushmore Academy who is so in love with attending high school that he spends more time founding clubs and participating in extracurricular activities than he spends in the classroom.  Things begin to change for Max when he strikes up a friendship with Herman Bloom, the father of a pair of thuggish twin classmates.  Played by Bill Murray with a droll mournfulness, Herman helps Max to begin to see the world beyond Rushmore. 
Unfortunately, they both catch sight of recently widowed Rosemary Cross (a glowing Olivia Williams), and their friendship turns acrimonious as they battle for her affections.  

Werth: Promise me we’ll never let a woman come between us.  

Wise: I don’t see how that’s possible, unless its Joan Crawford.  Anyway, Max gets expelled, Herman falls into depression, and the whole movie falls into chaos—

Werth: —all to the tune of Rushmore’s charmingly eclectic soundtrack.  

Wise: The whole movie is about obsession and in particular the kind of overwhelming single-mindedness of adolescent love.  Max isn’t really in love with Miss Cross, but he is in love with the feelings he gets while indulging in unrequited passions.  The same goes for his affair with Rushmore itself.  The school can’t return his affections, but Max is determined to express his feelings in the most dramatic ways possible.  Rushmore, in many ways, is about the passions that teenagers succumb to as they approach adulthood.  

Werth: Teenagers and Williamsburg hipsters.  

Wise: I know Wes Anderson has become sort of a darling of the hipster set, but I don’t think that’s fair to his talent.  Of course he’s stylized and occasionally ironic, but focusing on those two things misses the point because he uses them as a tart exterior to shield the extreme tenderness that lies just beneath the surface.

 Werth: Kind of like the tinfoil I’ve wrapped my Valentine’s Box with.

Wise: Alright, Craftmaster! I’ll put a Valentine’s card in your box.

Werth: I knew you would. Join us next week when Film Gab writes more love notes to great movies!

Friday, February 4, 2011


Werth: Hi, Wise.

Wise: Hi, Werth.  

Werth: So, the Superbowl is this Sunday.  Are you excited for the big day?  

Wise: You bet I am.  

Werth: Wh-what?  Is Martha Stewart performing in the halftime show?

Wise: No.  I’m not a football fan- just a fan of any event that requires a lunchmeat platter and some kind of melted cheese—pizza, nachos, cheese fries—it’s the perfect day to forget your waistline and remember why you have that complicated relationship with Velveeta and carbs. 

Werth: So will you be watching the game or just the buffet?

Wise: I prefer to spend my Superbowl Sunday a bit more quietly, curled up on the sofa watching 1936’s Pigskin Parade with Judy Garland in her first feature-length film.  

Werth: Only you could bring together the two disparate worlds of football and Judy Garland. 

Wise: Pigskin stars Stuart Erwin, Patsy Kelly and Jack Haley,  while Judy received ninth billing below the title.  She was only fourteen when she made the movie and had been under contract to MGM for years, but no matter how much the top brass at Metro respected her enormous voice, they had no idea what to do with her.  So when Fox asked to borrow her to play the kid sister to the hillbilly who turns out to be the football team’s only chance to win the big game against Yale, they let her go.  

Werth: And Judy scores a touchdown!  

Wise: Metaphorically, yes.  She leaves the gridiron to the boys, but she does belt out a few fun numbers like “The Texas Tornado,” “The Balboa,” and “It’s Love I’m After.”  It’s interesting to watch her performance because even though her talent is obvious, it is a bit uncontrolled—she’s awkward and she hasn’t yet figured out how to sing along convincingly to her pre-recorded tracks—but throughout we see glimpses of the wit and passion that would combine with the MGM grooming process to make her one of most enduring movie stars of all time.  

Werth: But she’s kind of stuck in the Kansas hayseed role.  

Wise: She is.  David Butler, the director, was largely responsible for creating Shirley Temple’s success, and you can see that he’s making an attempt to mold Judy into that same image.  All her costumes have enormous bows and dots and patterns, and her sleeves are puffed so big, it looks like she might float away—all in an effort to make her look younger and her talent seem more precocious.  She looks ridiculous to modern viewers, but the kid sister routine was the first step in creating the Garland legend.  And Judy’s not the only diamond in this rough. Pre-bombshell Betty Grable is a cute co-ed who throws off a lot of sparks, although it would take a few more years for her to ignite into a full fledged star.

Werth: You may like your football with peppy, adolescent musical numbers thrown in, but I prefer football movies that are crammed full of all the testosterone that God intended them to have.

Wise: This I gotta hear.

Werth: I’m talkin’ about Flash—ah-ahhh! He’ll save everyone of us!

Wise: Flash as in Flash Gordon?

Werth: Yes! In the 1980 re-imagining of the classic comic book and movie serial, Flash Gordon is a quarterback for the New York Jets who, along with tour guide Dale Arden and nutso scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov, travels to the planet Mongo to battle the Emperor Ming and save the Earth from being destroyed by such climactic calamities as “fiery hail.”

Wise: I’m not sensing as much testosterone as I am plain, run-of-the-mill geekiness.

Werth: Come on, Wise! Flash Gordon is an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza with laser battles, a whip fight on a spike-covered disc, football combat, and of course, there’s the seductive, gap-toothed Italian beauty Ornella Muti playing nympho Princess Aura. What red-blooded male could resist her half-time show?

Wise: Perhaps. But that still doesn’t explain why you like it.

Werth: The costumes and the sets! Danilo Donati took the art deco sensibility of the original comic books and expanded on it, creating sets and costumes that are outlandishly stylish—as if there was a world where all the interiors and clothing were designed by Grace Jones... with a bedazzler.

Wise: It all makes sense now.

Werth: And of course the acting is spectacularly campy! Max von Sydow makes Ming the Merciless a blase Noel Coward character who wears giant Asian bathrobes and never seems to be very excited no matter how many people he’s torturing or killing. Brian Blessed takes massive bites out of the scenery with his leering Prince Vultan. And big, blond dumbbell Sam J. Jones just has to take off his shirt or wear tight drawers to fulfill his contract. Not to mention a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton in tailored, woven, placemat tunics.

Wise: I think you lost the red-blooded males.

Werth: I’ll get them back with the all-Queen soundtrack that rocks with memorable bass drum and guitar licks that would drive any air guitar warrior into a thrashing frenzy.

Wise: So this year, it sounds like we’re less interested in whether the Steelers or the Packers win, but who comes out in a Judy vs. Flash scrimmage.

Werth: Hard to say, but I predict our Superbowl Sunday will go into camp overtime.

Wise: See you in the Film Gab locker room!