Friday, August 28, 2015

Israel's Golden Girl: A Woman Called Golda Review

A WOMAN CALLED GOLDA

Author's Note: This review is in conjunction with the 2015 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon taking place at the Journeys in Classic Film site.  Today we celebrate Ingrid Bergman, one of the true legends of cinema.  While best known for film, I've selected her final performance, the miniseries A Woman Called Golda, the life story of Israeli Founding Mother and Prime Minister Golda Meir, with Bergman as the title character.   Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for allowing me to participate.

Ingrid Bergman always found it odd that she, a tall Swedish Protestant woman, would be asked to play Golda Meir, a short Jewish woman.  It is a testament to her as an actress that she made herself so like Prime Minister Meir that the resemblance now seems obvious.  A Woman Called Golda was Bergman's final performance, and it is an excellent farewell to one of the great actresses of the Twentieth Century and an excellent narrative of one of the icons of Israeli history.

A Woman Called Golda covers Meir's life, with the story anchored by Meir's visit to her old elementary school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Little known fact: Golda was essentially American, as she helped create the Jewish state known as Israel.   Here, the elderly Golda (Bergman) answers questions from the children, with her lifelong friend and aide Lou Kaddar (Anne Jackson) reminiscing to herself from time to time of Golda's extraordinary journey. 

After surviving a pogrom in her native Russia, Golda dreams the Zionist Dream: a Jewish state in Palestine.  Her family comes to America, and a young Golda (Judy Davis), while thankful that she is in America where Jews can live free from fear of violent attacks, has not let the dream go.  She yearns to go to Palestine and live in a kibbutz, much to the consternation of her beau, Morris Meyerson (Leonard Nimoy).   Morris is faced with a difficult choice: he loves Golda, but has no desire to go to a kibbutz.  She won't marry him unless they both go to Palestine, and he doesn't want to go.  However, go they do.

Life in the kibbutz is hard, but Golda thrives to leadership.  Morris does his best but health issues eventually force them to leave and settle in Jerusalem.  Virtually broke, Golda has an unexpected reencounter with an old kibbutz friend, Ariel (Jack Thompson), who sees how good Golda is in leadership.  He persuades her to go to Tel Aviv and be part of the Zionist movement, causing a permanent rift between her, Morris (who separate but never divorce) and their children.  She finds the balance between being a mother and being a Zionist hard.

As the older Bergman moves higher and higher, she is a passionate advocate to creating the Jewish state despite the stiff opposition of both the British in their Palestinian Mandate and the Arab population who cannot stomach a Jewish state.  This becomes more imperative after the Holocaust, where the influx of Jewish survivors into Palestine is causing headaches for just about everyone in the region one way or another.  Golda, moved by Jewish children who have never seen a flower, is determined to bring as many to Palestine and to form the Jewish state.  She does go to Jordanian King Abdullah (Nigel Hawthorne) to plead for peace, but he is not helpful.  Despite it all, the State of Israel is formed and declared.  On the eve of Independence and the establishment of the Jewish state, Morris and Golda have one final meeting.  Morris is happy that the Jewish people now have a land of their own, but he and Golda both know it's come at a high personal cost.



We go to 1948.  Israel is declared into existence, and Golda becomes one of the few women to sign the Declaration of Independence.  She finds herself fighting all sorts of battles, from the major ones against the Arab states determined to wipe Israel and the Jewish people out of existence, to the surprisingly prudish nature of American Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Franklin Cover), who is shocked that people are living together outside of marriage.  Golda, in her diplomatic way, has to persuade young Jewish people to marry to placate the American.  She is part of government and thrives as Labor Minister, finding herself a better (and stereotypical) Jewish grandmother than she was a Jewish mother.

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (David de Keyser) is saved from assassination in the Knesset by Golda, who is injured with shrapnel in her legs.  While recovering from her injuries, the wily head of state asks Golda to become Foreign Minister.  She balks at the idea at first, but reluctantly agrees.  He also presses her to adopt a Hebrew name in keeping with his policy, and Golda Meyerson becomes Golda Meir.  After she is widowed (regretting how her duty separated her from the man she loved), she finds a semblance of romance with Ariel, who presses her to marry him.  Just as she's about to say yes, Ariel himself dies of a heart attack.  Privately devastated, she soldiers on, until she retires from public life.  The unexpected death of the Prime Minister pushes the Labour Party to select Golda Meir as Israel's fourth Prime Minister its first female head of state.  She goes against her own instincts to strike first and the Yom Kippur War almost succeeds in wiping Israel out.  Only through the arms from the United States and the rallying from Israel troops under legendary military figure Moshe Dayan (Yossi Graber) does Israel push back.  Still, the high cost of the war brings an end to the Meir government.  Once again out of government, she is recalled one last time to help with negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (Robert Loggia).  At the end, she finds herself as the Mother of Israel, still sharp-tongued as ever, but with a quiet satisfaction that she has been instrumental in fulfilling that Zionist Dream of so long ago.


I find voice-overs quite difficult to bear in film, and A Woman Called Golda has two of them.  We get the voice-over of Meir herself in limited quantity, and most of them come from Kaddar's perspective.  I never understood why the makers of the miniseries opted for this method when for long stretches there were no voice-overs.  Sometimes they worked (hearing from Meir how working to being a mother to Israel separated her from her role as a mother to her own children is sad), but other times I felt they could have dispensed with that. 

The more curious thing about this dual voice-over business was that in all that, I cannot remember how Kaddar and Meir met, let alone why they were such close friends.  They did have wonderful moments together (Meir had done her best to hide her lymphoma from Kaddar and the public, but when she finally had to have secret treatments, the silent understanding between Kaddar and Meir is played so well between Jackson and Bergman.

There is also the question of casting.  Seeing the British Hawthorne in brown makeup as the Arab King Abdullah is not too bad, if a bit questionable.  However, nothing excuses the casting of Italian-American Robert Loggia as the black Sadat.  Loggia did his best to try to both sound and look like Sadat, but the makeup work looked obvious and Loggia's distinctive voice still broke through.

Curiously, a year after A Woman Called Golda debuted, a miniseries about Anwar Sadat appeared in the United States.  Sadat at least cast an African-American actor (Louis Gossett, Jr.) as Sadat, and if one were to ask someone whether Gossett, Jr. or Loggia was closer to Sadat's appearance, I think the former would win.

This question of casting is important, because again on the surface it would appear to be completely wrong to cast the glamorous Scandinavian as the Hebrew heroine.  However, Bergman does a marvel as Meir.  She adopts an excellent accent and does her best to look like Meir.  Obviously they will never bear a similarity, but Bergman's performance is excellent throughout.  Whether she is angry at the slow pace of movement, horrified at the violence, fearful that Israel will fall due to her own rare and uncharacteristic timidity, or heartbroken that there are innocent children who have never seen a flower, Bergman does become Meir.  Bergman never plays Meir as a woman conscious of making history.  Instead, she plays her as a woman who sees something that needs to be done and does it. 

Her best scenes aren't the ones where she is doing something important or historic.  Instead, Bergman's best moments are when she plays the private Golda.  Her final scene with Nimoy's Morris is so heartbreaking.  Both of them, who have shared so much but who found that her calling was not his, say their farewells.  Both know she accomplished a miracle, but both know it came at an enormous cost to their own private happiness.  As Morris walks away, we see Golda wants to call out to him, but she can only stand there and suppress the tears she longs to cry.

A Woman Called Golda is a fine farewell performance from Ingrid Bergman, who like Meir, defies the odds to show us what an extraordinary talent she was.  Bergman was ill with breast cancer at the time she made the miniseries and would die four months after the miniseries' debut.  It's interesting that both Meir and Bergman showed personal courage despite intense odds against them.  Perhaps this is one reason why Ingrid Bergman seems so perfect in the role of Golda Meir.

That, and the fact that Ingrid Bergman was one of the Twentieth Century's finest actresses. 


1898-1978
         

8/10

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

By the Water's Edge: On the Waterfront Review



ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)

The great tragedy of On the Waterfront is that it cannot be divorced from the actions of its director, Elia Kazan, during the Red Scare of the 1950s.  This story of a man's redemption through his decision to speak out is seen by many as a mea culpa for Kazan, the screenwriter Budd Schulburg, and perhaps one of the film's stars, Lee J. Cobb for their decision to name names of others they knew who were at one point members of the Communist Party.  I cannot answer for certain whether On the Waterfront is indeed a defense of their individual decisions and actions during the Red Scare and the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s.  I can say that while the parallel is extremely tempting, perhaps even true, there is a major difference between the two.

No one in Hollywood was bumped off as a result of their past affiliations. Careers and reputations were ruined, there were fatal heart attacks and suicides brought on by the stress and pressure of the investigations.  However, no one was actually murdered by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  That can't be said of the mob bosses in On the Waterfront, who almost delighted in killing their opponents.  In a certain way, the mob bosses played like Stalinists, killing all those who spoke out.  One wonders if instead of union hoods, the images were of a dictatorship, would the main character's actions be seen as an apology for 'naming names'?  Maybe, maybe not, I can't say for certain one way or the other. 

Therefore, does On the Waterfront present a defense of what many even now still see as indefensible?  I suppose that depends on who is doing the talking.

While a whole article could be written about what On the Waterfront could mean, could be interpreted as, this is not what we're here for.  We are here to review the film on its own merits divorced from whatever politics one wants to put into it.  On that and on that alone, On the Waterfront really is one of the greatest American films made: a story about the cost of loyalty, betrayal, courage, and in the midst of this, a love story.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a former boxer, is the brother of Charlie "The Gent" (Rod Steiger), who is the right-hand man to mob/union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb).  Terry unwittingly helps kill a dockworker named Joey Doyle, who was set to testify against the union with the Waterfront Crime Commission.  Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint), visiting from a convent school upstate, demands to know who killed her brother.  Also drawn into the murder is Father Barry (Karl Malden), a Catholic priest who sees how corrupt and debasing the docks have become under Friendly's reign of terror.

Terry, who has a passion for pigeons, finds himself drawn to Edie, a feeling that is reciprocated.  However, Friendly and Charlie, determined to keep their criminal activities hidden and control of the docks total, won't tolerate any dissent.  Another dockworker who has decided to testify against Friendly at the urging and with the support of Father Barry, also meets a gruesome end.  An enraged Father Barry now shames the dockworkers, telling them in an impassioned impromptu sermon that Christ is with them and that they must stand up to tyranny.


Terry now is facing a great conflict: testify about what he knows (putting his life at risk and going against his own brother) or keeping D & D (deaf and dumb).  Edie, who is devastated by Terry's involvement in her brother's death but still falling in love with him, along with Father Terry, urge him to testify.  This grows when Friendly puts the squeeze on Charlie to get Terry to either go along with the program or kill Terry himself.  Charlie does his best, but Terry tells him how Charlie failed to look out for him when Charlie, under Friendly's orders, had Terry take a dive. 

Charlie lets Terry go, but it costs him his life and almost that of Terry and Edie.  Terry, deciding to testify against Michael J. Skelly (Johnny Friendly's real name) and the other mob/union bosses, finds himself a pariah in his community for ratting.  A former young admirer even goes so far as to kill all of Terry's pigeons in retaliation: a pigeon for a (stool) pigeon.  Terry, however, won't back down and confronts an enraged Johnny Friendly.  As they fight it out, Friendly has to resort to getting his thugs to pummel Terry, while all the dockworkers stand by and watch.  The other dockworkers, finally fed up with Johnny Friendly and his crooks, tell a badly beaten Terry they'll go into the docks if he goes in.  Forcing himself up, Terry stumbles to the docks, with Johnny being pushed off the bridge and into the East River by Pop Doyle (John Hamilton).  Johnny has lost control of the waterfront, and Terry, beaten, bruised, but unbowed, leads the men to work.

Let's take a look at On the Waterfront without the prism of whether those involved meant it as a defense on what Kazan, Cobb, Schulberg, or anyone else did during the McCarthy era in cooperating with HUAC.  If we look at it, we see that this is two stories in one: a story about doing the right thing even when it will not benefit him in any way, and a love story about how a woman brings a man a moral awakening and his own worth. 

We see this in the evolution of Terry, who starts out believing that in this world, you do it to others before they do it to you (a variation of the Golden Rule) and ends up standing alone against the unofficial code of the community that demands silence in exchange for a chance to make a living.   On the Waterfront, in the character of Terry, is someone who sees that the quick and easy is neither, that keeping a willful blind eye and deaf ears eats away at the very soul of someone. 



On the Waterfront has such fantastic performances that each actor/actress appears to be less giving a performance than actually being the role.  This is Marlon Brando at his earliest best, before fame and disinterest eroded his powers.  His Terry is a simple man who wants to be left alone and who just wants to get by, but who also mourns the loss of a chance to move up.  I think people who've never seen the film know Brando's "I could have been a contender" monologue, where Terry tells his brother that in exchange for a few lousy bucks Terry could have gone on to great things.  The genuine hurt and sense of betrayal breaks your heart.  Throughout On the Waterfront Brando is simply perfect in the role.  There's the disinterest he has about everything, the breaking down of his protective shell when it comes to Edie (one of the first good things to come his way), the struggle to do what his conscience is telling him to.  Terry is not a man to think but to act, and here, he's called to hold back, to break the code, and his eventual decision to risk everything to do what he sees as the right is an extraordinary journey.

Elia Kazan directed everyone so well in terms of their performances but also in terms of the subtext.  My favorite moment (apart from Terry's "Contender" scene) is when Johnny Friendly orders Charlie to take care of his own brother.  We see that Charlie is literally under Johnny's heel with Friendly's feet propped on the table and Charlie at the other side of them.  Kazan, without making a big show of it, shows that Charlie is at Johnny's feet.  Kazan used everything: the actors, the text, the subtext, to further the story, and it's a marvel to see.

Matching Brando is terms of acting is Steiger as his brother Charlie, who at first isn't troubled by his actions with the union but who in his own way tries to look after his kid brother.  When he sees what he has taken away from Terry, he (and we) know that it will not end well for Charlie, but we also see that Charlie has his own conscience to answer to, and that in his way, Charlie achieved a sense of nobility.  Cobb is also brilliant as the tyrannical Friendly (a name more than tinged with irony): the determined, bullying manner to him in his desire to control men, and Malden as the voice of Christian morality in this dog-eat-dog world.

As a side note, Malden's Father Barry made me think the film was prescient if you substitute Father Barry for a Cardinal Wojtyla (later known as Pope John Paul II) and the mob/union bosses as the Polish Communist leaders. 

Saint, making her debut, could not have made a better film to start her career.  Her Edie is the heart of the film, a young woman who finds courage of her own but who is also conflicted: her loyalty to her brother versus her growing love for the real Terry.

One thing that elevates On the Waterfront is Leonard Bernstein's score.  It enhances all the scenes, from the opening brutality of the seedy world of the tenements to the romance between Terry and Edie.

If there were any fault in On the Waterfront, you could argue that Terry in real life wouldn't be stumbling towards the docks.  He'd be sleeping with the fishes.  However, while that would have been true to life, I think we need to have a happy (or happy-ish) ending, a note of hope that speaking truth to power despite the dangers and keeping to a moral code is better than serving an evil system will win out in the end.

Again, we go back to whether On the Waterfront ties into the morality of giving friendly evidence against others.  Some will always see Elia Kazan as evil: the opportunist who sold out innocents and lived a life of success and luxury while the innocents lived in squalor, in exile, or even killed themselves.  Others will see Kazan as a brilliant filmmaker and may not see the film as an apology or defense of his actions.  I leave it to each viewer to make their own mind on the subject.

What I do know is this: On the Waterfront, as a film, is astonishing: brilliant in its acting, complex in its morality, true to its gritty urban setting, and among the greatest American films.                

DECISION: A+

1955 Best Picture: Marty

Monday, August 24, 2015

One LAST Semester



That's it.  One more time, the last time, and I'm done.

Yes, it's time for school once again to roar its ugly head and take away from more important things like these reviews. 

As if I haven't fallen behind already.

A lot of goals in the summer were not met.  I didn't clear out my DVR as I'd hoped, though I did do a good number of them.  That I blame partially on the baseball games too.

In any case, as of this moment I might not be able to publish as much as I want, depending on how heavy the coursework is.  Some semesters flowed by to where I hardly noticed them.  Others I was almost in tears (and for the record, I'm still mad about getting a 79.5 in one course rather than have it rounded up to an even 80).  There will be one week where I definitely won't be posting. 

That will be during the EOP (End of Project) essay writing, where I have to come up with three essays of 1,500 to 2,500 words in one week on three various topics of their choosing.  It's on a Pass/Fail basis, and if two professors vote Fail, then it's all over. 

Pray for me!

I have one or two pre-scheduled posts, but I cannot guarantee how updated we'll get.  I'll try to work some in whenever possible.

I think it's fair to let everyone know.  God Willing come early December, around the time of my birthday, I'll be at long last free of this burden, and this WILL be my last school experience.  Mom would like me to try for a Doctorate now, and I will...provided SHE does ALL the work.

I hope to finish this horror quickly, and have the best birthday/Christmas I've had in years.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Catered Affair: A Review



THE CATERED AFFAIR

Author's Note: This review is in conjunction with the 2015 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon taking place at the Journeys in Classic Film site.  Today we celebrate Debbie Reynolds, one of the few SUTS actors still alive as of this writing (and I might add, a native-born El Pasoan).  While best known for her perky and cheerful persona and musical skills in such films as Singin' in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, I've selected The Catered Affair, a little-known film where Reynolds didn't rely on her upbeat screen image.  In fact, The Catered Affair is a rare dramatic turn where she was asked not to sing or dance, and where I think she was called on to not just act, but act with three Oscar winners.  A daunting task for someone who up to this time was known as a hoffer with a big smile.  Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for allowing me to participate.

Taking a page from Marty, another Paddy Chayefsky television play was given the big-screen treatment.  The Catered Affair has a lot of curious elements in it: Bette Davis as a frumpy Bronx housewife, and elitist pseudo-intellectual Gore Vidal (or as I call him, BORE BANAL) writing the screenplay of a lower-class family.  Despite all this, the universality of the uniquely American tradition of big weddings comes through in a strong drama that draws you in.

Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine), a taxi driver, has chanced upon the best luck in the world.  Someone he knows is about to retire and thus can sell him and a friend his medallion for $8000.  This means that he and his friend can go into business for themselves, as New York limits the number of medallions it offers cabs, but they can be sold by the owners to others.  Unbeknown to him, his daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) has gotten engaged to Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor) and they have a time crunch in getting married as they plan to go to California to help a fellow couple move who need a car and the other couple's wife is pregnant.

The news hits the Hurley family with surprise, especially the fact that Jane wants a very small wedding: just immediate family on both sides and no reception.  Tom's willing to go along with this, but his wife Agnes (Bette Davis) is not thrilled that she can't give her only daughter the big wedding she herself was denied.  Still, reluctantly she goes along with her daughter's wish, at first.  Not thrilled with the news either is Uncle Jack (Barry Fitzgerald), who despite paying half the rent and being Agnes' brother is excluded from the wedding because he isn't immediate family.

Thus begins the problems: if they invite Uncle Jack, they feel honor-bound to invite all their extended family and friends.  When the Hurleys have the more upmarket Hallorans for dinner, their social status hits the Hurleys more and soon Agnes becomes determined to show they aren't poor.  She gets Jane to reluctantly agree to a reception, and then things start growing, with hors d'oeuvres and limos and a wedding gown.  This is bleeding Tom dry and worse, taking from the money he saved up to get the medallion, but Tom cannot bring himself to say he'd rather use the money on the medallion than on one day.

Even Ralph finds the proceedings rather unhealthy, and Jane's poor friend (literally) Alice (Joan Camden) asks to withdraw from being matron of honor, finding the $35 for a dress too much for her and her unemployed husband, who similarly can't afford a blue suit to accompany her.  It gets to a point where when Alice says that a sudden turn now lets them be able to afford it, both Jane and Ralph realize they are lying and getting into unnecessary debt. 

Eventually, Jane pushes to go back to her original plan, highly upsetting Agnes.  The rift between Agnes and Tom grows, but in the end, as they go off to their daughter's wedding, Agnes and Tom find they do love each other, with Agnes presenting something a gift to Tom: his money that will allow him to buy the medallion after all.

I think the success of The Catered Affair comes from its universality.  Every one of us has either participated or been at a wedding, and we see the pressure to impress, to figure out whom to invite, to be dazzled by the bride's gown, to sample the food. 

If I may, I remember one wedding I attended.  It was at a small hall, there was a set meal, and the music consisted of playing about four songs before the bride and groom left.  They did leave behind a karaoke machine for us to enjoy, but the whole thing ended by nine.  When I got home, my mother expressed surprise that I was back.  "You didn't go to the wedding?", she asked.  "Mom," I replied, "it's already over".  I had gotten home at 9:30.  We had judged the wedding a failure, despite that this was what the bride and groom wanted (at least we figured). 

As such, the idea that the Hurleys, particularly Agnes, wanted a big wedding to show they weren't poor and give the best impression.  However, we also see that even with the best of intentions things can quickly spin out of control.

The Catered Affair doesn't have an evil force.  I don't believe that Agnes is a villain.  She doesn't want to cause harm and means the best for her daughter, but she becomes blinded by her own lost wedding and with a chance to essentially live out her own hopes through her daughter starts pushing people into doing things they'd rather not do. 

It's interesting to see Davis in a working-class role, and part of me thinks she didn't quite get it.  Davis is a bit too posh to be completely believable as a Bronx housewife, her clipped speaking manner at odds with her efforts at a Nuw Yawk accent.  She did if not a brilliant job at least a great effort.


Much better is Borgnine, who is at home in the Chayevsky world.  I did wonder why Tom never flat-out told Agnes that he wanted to use the money to get his medallion, indicating a bit of a weakness in him.  That never sat right with me.

I think Debbie Reynolds (our star of the day) comes off best, despite not being fond of the film itself.  It is so rare when Reynolds was allowed a rare dramatic turn which went against her screen image as the upbeat ingénue with a bright smile and a song in her heart.  Here, she is able to hold her own against titans like Davis and Borgnine.  Her Jane is a good Catholic daughter caught between pleasing her mother and her fiancée, trying to navigate everyone's expectations and constantly finding herself at odds with her own wishes.  It's a sign that Reynolds, when given different material, could handle straight drama. 

It is curious also that despite how good she could be with material like The Catered Affair, Reynolds was rarely given the chance to do straight drama.  It's a shame really, since she was so good at it that she could have been a strong dramatic actress in her own right.

This was also Taylor's first major role, and as the lower-middle-class man who wants to marry quickly he did well, though the part wasn't the most fascinating.

The Catered Affair has some curiosities.  It looks like Vidal and director Richard Brooks attempted to lengthen the film with a subplot involving the bachelor Uncle Jack's flirtations with the Widow Mrs. Rafferty (Dorothy Stickney).  The subplot wasn't bad, and Fitzgerald and Stickney worked well together, but I do wonder what relevance it had to the overall plot.

Still, the fact that I think people can relate to the story and the generally strong performances makes The Catered Affair a film people will enjoy as much as a good wedding. 

DECISION: B+

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Falling In Love Again: Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song Review


MARLENE DIETRICH: HER OWN SONG


Author's Note: This review is in conjunction with the 2015 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon taking place at the Journeys in Classic Film site.  Today we celebrate Marlene Dietrich, a German actress who was brought to America as a rival to another SUTS featured actress: Greta Garbo.  Dietrich may not have had a catchphrase like Garbo's "I want to be alone", but she was more than able to hold her own against anyone.  I've selected Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, a documentary about Dietrich made after her death.  Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for allowing me to participate.


Marlene Dietrich was a star.  You know this by the fact that her name was enough to draw the public's attention.  It didn't matter whether you used her first or last name.  If you talked about "Marlene", others knew who you were referring to.  If you said, "Dietrich", the same applied.  She was risqué, she was beautiful, she was a legend.  Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song, a documentary about Dietrich, makes the case that she was also something more.  She was a genuine heroine.

Her Own Song touches on her early life: her upbringing as a Prussian military man's daughter and how she and her sister Elisabeth were a bit sheltered from the chaos of post-World War I Germany.  Dietrich was a fascinating combination of strict Prussian disciple and Weimar Germany decadence: a woman with a strong work ethic and a disinterest in other people's opinion.  She started making waves in German cinema and theater, though she wasn't particularly popular or well-regarded.  She then meets Joseph von Sternberg, who saw in her the potential for a star, which the German film company UFA didn't.  Casting her as Lola-Lola, temptress in The Blue Angel, Dietrich becomes a star.  Her ability to speak English allowed her to play both the German and English versions, and a chance to make American films.

Her Own Song spends most of its time though on Dietrich's activities before and during World War II.  She looked upon the growing rise of Nazism with anger and disgust.  However, the Nazis were desperate to have her return to The Fatherland, whom they dreamed of making the jewel of Nazi cinema.  Her American career had tapered off, and both Hitler and Goebbels made lavish offers to make films for the Reich.  There was both financial and emotional pressure for her to return. 

Others might have been tempted, especially since Elisabeth and Dietrich's beloved mother Josephine wouldn't leave Germany.  Despite being the embodiment of the ideal of a Nazi woman (a tall, blonde, blue-eyed woman), they failed to understand she was Prussian at heart.  As such, she wouldn't deal with these thugs.



The emotional conflict between her love for her homeland and her hatred for what it had become culminated in her becoming an American citizen.  Denounced at home, her private anguish grew when she thought that the war bonds she sold were being used against her own people.  She threw herself into the war effort, entertaining troops and using her influence to get as close to the front as possible.  She faced enemy fire and even endured having cold rats run across her.  Dietrich even came close to capture, when she and her troupe found itself caught in the Battle of the Bulge.

At war's end, she was one of the first civilians allowed to enter occupied Germany, and thanks to her friends in high places, was able to get in contact with her mother (though for security reasons, both had to speak in English rather than German).  The end of the war, however, ended a lot for Dietrich.  Her career took more dives, and she found her work in two post-war films, A Foreign Affair and Judgment at Nuremberg, extremely difficult.  She agreed to be in the first (where she played a Nazi mistress) only because of director Billy Wilder (whom she respected and would do just about anything for) and got through her scenes in the second, where she essentially represents all Germany (and its insistence they knew nothing of the Holocaust) thanks to Spencer Tracy's encouragement, saying that if Dietrich said it, people would believe it.

For Dietrich, the war was reality, not the 'movie star' world, which she considered prostitution (doing work for the money).  She had continued success after the war with her one-woman shows, but at 75 she withdrew from public view, never to be seen again.  She held herself in isolation until her death 16 years later.


As the bulk of Her Own Song deals with her involvement in World War II (both prior to it and during it, along with how the war affected her for the rest of her life), we get a far different image from "Dietrich" as this legend.  Instead, the audience comes away with a great deal of respect and admiration for her personal courage as well as for the tragedy of a woman who was German at heart, but who found that the world she knew had been destroyed. 

Dietrich was forever Dietrich in how she interacted with the world, not caring for other people's opinions.  She didn't care that the Nazis called her a traitor: she was going to perform for her adopted nation.  Similarly, when told she could not sing German songs when she went to Tel Aviv, she wouldn't hear of it either.  She told the promoter she wouldn't sing one German song...she'd sing nine.  Before she did though, she asked the audience if she could sing a song in German (perhaps a rare time when she did take other's views into account).  However, I think that in the back of her mind, the audience, which included many German Jews who had either fled their country or were Holocaust survivors, would know of her work during the war and would see her intentions were good.  The audience roared their approval, and many were in tears when she would sing not just traditional German songs or her hits like Lili Marleen, but also German versions of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, which she used as a powerful anti-war anthem.

A good theme for Her Own Song came from Dietrich herself (courtesy of Jamie Lee Curtis' narration, with Nina Franoszek speaking the words of Dietrich).  In a diary as a child, Dietrich wrote that she was 'at times nostalgic, at times matter-of-fact'.  In a way, Dietrich remained that way for her life: sometimes overwhelmed with nostalgia for her Prussian past, for the love of her 'boys', and for her image (the latter causing her to withdraw from even friends and family, refusing anyone to see her as she was in the last years of her life, so they could preserve the memory of 'Dietrich' as Lola-Lola rather than the old woman she was).

According to Her Own Song, the war was the most powerful thing that impacted the whole of Dietrich's life.  It caused her to leave Germany, physically and emotionally.  It caused her separation from her lover, French actor Jean Gabin, both physically and after the war ended, emotionally.  For her, reality was the war.  Everything else was not, and Dietrich's career and life were forever shaped by those years between the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler.

One especially powerful moment in the film was when Dietrich finally gets in touch with her mother, whom she has not heard from in six years at least.  As we see images of a ruined Berlin, the genuine anxiety mixed with joy at the mother-and-child reunion is heartbreaking.  Josephine calls Marlene "my dear heart", and the sound of this glamorous, sophisticated chanteuse saying "Mommy" brings the goddess down to Earth.

The idea that Marlene Dietrich was motherly may come as a surprise to many who know her only as the glamorous diva, but Dietrich was extremely affectionate and protective of many.  She became a mother-figure to the exiled German/Jewish community in Hollywood, cooking and cleaning for them and speaking to them in German and French, creating a little Old World refuge to those thrown out of their own.  The public and private Dietrichs were so at odds, and Her Own Song allows us a brief glimpse into it.

As Her Own Song is almost exclusively about Dietrich and the war, everything else, especially anything negative or perhaps scandalous is left out.  We don't hear about Dietrich's bisexuality and only passing references to her infidelity to her husband, Rudi Sieber (and that he too had a lover).  We also don't hear about Dietrich's ego.  An amusing story Judy Garland told was about how she and Noel Coward were once invited to Dietrich's home.  "Would you like to hear my album?" she asked them.  Eager to hear it, they agreed.  Garland reported with gales of laughter that the album consisted of nothing but applause, with Dietrich helpfully pointing out where each ovation took place.  "This was Berlin," she said as the audience erupted in joy.  When the applause grew louder and more fanatical, Dietrich said, "This was Munich".  Garland added, "But there not ONE NOTE of music!  It was all applause".  Coward whispered to Garland, "I hope there isn't another side," only to discover that there was.

Granted, Garland was known for her tall tales, but it does give a glimpse that Dietrich had at the very least, a healthy ego.

We also don't know how she lived out her final years in seclusion, a version of Norma Desmond save for the fact that Dietrich was quite sane and not one to live in the past.

Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song is a strong and fascinating portrait of a brave woman who stood by her convictions even though it cost her the world she knew and loved.  Less about her general career than about how the horrors of Nazism and war affected her once gaily decadent life, Her Own Song makes an excellent primer to the life and career of this extraordinary figure.

1901-1990


DECISION: B+   

Friday, August 21, 2015

Murder Southern Style: In the Heat of the Night Review


IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)

In the Heat of the Night is a curiosity in cinema in that when the film was adapted to television for a successful series, the characters were the same but rather than the racist and antagonistic battle between Chief Gillespie and Detective Virgil Tibbs, they actually got on rather well.  I loved the television series, but I knew very little of the film apart from the famous "They CALL ME MR. TIBBS!" line.  Now, at long last I have seen In the Heat of the Night.  On the whole, it is a good film, though I found it less about the murder investigation than about how the Old South didn't take kindly to strange Negroes* thinking they were the equal of whites.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is arrested on suspicion of murder of Mr. Colbert, a wealthy Northern industrialist about to build a major factory in Sparta, Mississippi.  The local Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) thinks Virgil might have done it because it is impossible for a Negro to be carrying a large amount of money.  As it happens, Virgil is a police detective himself in Philadelphia.  "Mississippi?" an incredulous Gillespie asks.  "Pennsylvania," Virgil angrily corrects him.

Virgil wants to leave immediately, but two things prevent him.  The first is his commanding officer in Pennsylvania, who asks him to help the investigation.  The second, unbeknown to him, is the Widow Colbert (Lee Grant), who sees that Tibbs is a competent detective who will actually solve the case.  She issues an ultimatum: she will not build the factory if the Negro officer is pulled off the case.  That being said, Gillespie is ordered to work with Tibbs.

There are quite a few suspects in the murder investigation, and whenever Gillespie arrests one, Tibbs is there to tell him he's wrong.  Tibbs suspects out-and-out racist Mr. Endicott (Larry Gates), the man who has the most to gain from having the factory closed.  Endicott takes umbrage at a Negro suggesting he is a murdered, and promptly slaps Detective Tibbs.

To the shock of all, Virgil Tibbs slaps back!

The case takes a few twists and turns, with thugs going after Tibbs for getting airs above his station, but Gillespie, who is growing in a grudging respect for Tibbs (which is actually reciprocated by Tibbs) comes to his aid.  Eventually, they start working together to come to the resolution to this mystery, one that involves backroom abortions, naked white girls, and more bigots.

The mystery solved, Virgil Tibbs leaves Sparta.  Gillespie takes him to the station and as Tibbs boards, Gillespie calls out to him,  "Virgil, you take care now, y'hear?"  Tibbs smiles, quietly saying, "I hear".

He Who Gets Slapped...
As an actual mystery, I felt In the Heat of the Night was a bit of a letdown.  The actual killer looked so obvious in his overdone craziness that it was a wonder the entire Sparta Sheriff's Department didn't peg him earlier.  It also makes one wonder how Sheriff Gillespie came to be Sheriff in the first place.  He was so totally inept, arresting people left right and center with varying degrees of logic.  Part of me wonders whether we could have had Gillespie still be the racist he was, but one who at least was competent in his job.  It would have given us a real 'meeting of equals' rather than the dumb hick and the brighter black man.

As a side note, the television series at least made both Gillespie and Tibbs intelligent, though again times had changed and the idea of a bigot being the lead would not have worked.

However, in other respects In the Heat of the Night is a strong film.  While Steiger got the Oscar, I think Poitier gave the better performance.  His Tibbs is a man quietly seething at the indignities he endures save for one great moment, the famous "Slap" when Tibbs smacks the bigoted Endicott.  This is one of the most famous moments in In the Heat of the Night, a black man literally striking back at violence done to him and his dignity.

This is a crucial scene, because we see that Gillespie, for once, cannot bring himself to do what is expected of him.  Endicott asks him what he's going to do about it, and Gillespie replies that he doesn't know.  The growing relationship between Gillespie and Tibbs is given one scene late in the film, when both are at Gillespie's house.  Gillespie drops his defensive stance slightly to reveal a slightly wounded man, facing age and loneliness.  Tibbs reaches out, but Gillespie becomes defensive again.  Still, we see that they have reached a rapport, if not always an easy one, but an understanding as to the strengths of the other.

Director Norman Jewison kept things flowing smoothly, the pacing never flagging through the film.  He got a great performance out of Poitier, and Steiger maybe was a bit over-the-top but bigoted sheriffs aren't known for subtlety so I'm not going to belabor the point.

If anything, what I found again slightly disappointing was the actual mystery in In the Heat of the Night.  The resolution came if not quickly at least unsurprising, as if we needed a killer and this obvious weirdo would fit in just nicely.  Apart from that In the Heat of the Night is a good film, less about the crime and more about the world it took place in, one where the times were a'changing, whether people liked it or not.        

*As this is 1967, I've elected to use the prevailing terms of the times.  The term 'Negro' or 'Negroes' is no longer considered acceptable to describe someone now termed "African-American" or 'black'.  However, since these were the terms used, I've elected to use them here.  Another term used in the film to describe African-Americans I will not use under any circumstances. 

DECISION: B-

1968 Best Picture Winner: Oliver!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Plaza Classic Film Festival 2015: Some Thoughts



Maybe it's me.

Maybe there is something thoroughly wrong with me, as an individual, that I don't perceive and others do.  Maybe I unconsciously carry some powerful vibe that makes almost all my efforts doomed to failure.

I thought this regarding this year's coverage of the Plaza Classic Film Festival here in my hometown of El Paso. 

It seems that every time I try to be assertive, try to take positive steps forward, they end up blowing up in my face.  Maybe I'm just doing it wrong, over and over again, and like constantly falling off a bicycle, can't seem to get the hang of it. 

There was the time when I was assertive in seeking a job at El Dorado High School.  I called, I faxed, I went to the office, all to plead my case.  What ended up happening was that the assistant principal called my house (I was living at home at the time) and he yelled at my mother, shouting and berating her to tell me to leave them alone.  So shocked was she, so upset, that this normally uber-assertive woman got off the phone right away, highly upset at this fiasco.

El Dorado High School...where a coach was arrested for transporting pot, another fired for encouraging hazing on his team, and a teacher was recorded being verbally abusive to the point of using vulgarities at students, and yet I was the one considered too much of a nuisance and unstable to work there.

Then there was the time that I went to substitute at the San Jacinto Adult Education Center in The EP.  There was a mix-up and I got called for a job that had apparently been cancelled.  This had happened before at another school, and I was sent to the library to fill the time.  The front office was terrified that I showed up, and didn't know what to do.  The director was at another class.  I offered to work at the library, but they didn't know what to do.  Finally, I asked if maybe I could talk to the director.  At this, the front staff became genuinely terrified to the point of hysterics.  "WHAT?!" they stuttered.  "YOU WANT TO TALK TO HER?!"  There was total fear in their voices and faces.  Eventually the director did come, and after some calls, stormed up to me, wagging her finger, and said they'd pay me for the day but that I was to go.  She then told me, "And I think it was very rude of you to ask to speak to me!" 

She was yelling and quite hysterical.  Growing in her fury, she ended by screaming, and I do mean SCREAMING, at me, "GET OUT!  GET OUT!  GET OUT OF MY CAMPUS OR I'LL HAVE SECURITY ESCORT YOU OUT!"

And that was just because I had asked to speak to her.  Imagine if I had demanded it.

I was so mad I rushed from the San Jacinto Center and straight to the El Paso Independent School District Central Office and filed an official complaint.  Curiously, the date was Halloween.  Less than a month later, I got the call from the City of El Paso to work for them at the Public Library, and decided that with this good job, I saw no need to pursue the matter.

And to think, The El Paso Community Foundation
thinks that I'M the weird one!
I relate these stories because I got the same sense of deja vu when dealing with the Plaza Classic Film Festival 2015.  For two years, the PCFF had been extremely cooperative in helping me cover the festival.  I would send my list of movies I would cover to the El Paso Community Foundation President Eric Pearson  and he would be kind enough to have tickets waiting for me. 

Following the exact same procedure, I sent my list to the e-mail I had sent them before.  The fact that I got no reply or verification didn't concern me, as I had not gotten one the previous years.  As it so happened, I was in the Downtown area to exchange tickets for the EP Baseball games and while there, stopped at the Plaza box office to see if I had any tickets waiting there.  At the box office, they found nothing under my name, then suggested I stop by the EPCF office less than a block away and see if they had them there.

I go, and to be frank, it is extremely hot in The EP.  I'm walking in a long-sleeve shirt at 100+ degree temperatures, with a cap and tennis shoes.  I go up to the office and ask about the tickets.

The front office staff (at this point, I think front office staffs are one of my mortal enemies, because they have an inbred hostility towards me) looked at me like I was some homeless, unhinged figure who just wandered in suffering from hallucinations caused by heatstroke.  They had no idea what I was talking about.  Even after I presented my Online Film Critics Society card, the secretary looked at me with a most curious eye, as if I were making all this up, the OFCS was an imaginary group, and I was flat-out nuts. 

At one point she asked, "Are you asking for free tickets?" with a somewhat condescending tone.  I didn't like this question because it made it look like I was asking for something just to ask.  The idea that I might actually be a real film reviewer covering the festival in my professional capacity didn't cross her mind.  In fact, the EPCF front office had if not an overt hostility at least a cool indifference towards someone not part of the El Paso Times.

I do wonder whether, apart from The Times, if the PCFF gets major press coverage (and The Times is again, the local paper).

I know that it wasn't a hostility towards me, because as I said, the PCFF had been highly cooperative before.  Mr. Eric Pearson, a most pleasant figure, had always been there at the ready to help.  I figure this is a failure to communicate, to coin a phrase.  However, I simply could not think of what else to do.  I took the secretary's advise and sent another e-mail, but nothing doing...the first day I could go the box office had nothing for me.  In fairness, they did tell me that maybe one of the ushers had something for an "Aragon", but every usher had no idea what I was talking about.

As a side note, one of the security figures was a bit bitchy.  She looked at me and snapped, "Can I help you?"  I asked if she was an usher.  Sneeringly, she said, "NO!  I'm Security".  Gee...didn't know Bloodsucking Bastards was in such danger of a raid.



I went back at least twice to ask if anything was there the other times I went, but after the third time I threw my hands up in despair and said, 'that's it'.  I had planned to cover the following films:

Bloodsucking Bastards
Shorts 1 (collection of short films)
Enter the Dragon
Dark Victory
Do You Dream in Color?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The King and I
The Deer Hunter
Stop Making Sense
Horse Feathers
My Little Chickadee
Grey Gardens
The Stranger

However, after a lot of thought, I opted for just two (Wrath of Khan and The Deer Hunter, the latter completing my Best Picture Oscar Winners list) at $16.  If I'd gone to everything and paid out of my own pocket, it would have been $66 (Shorts 1 and Stop Making Sense being free).  That isn't counting somewhere between $7 to $10 for parking, plus the 25+ mile drive from work or home to Downtown.

I wasn't about to spend $66 minimum to cover a film festival in my professional capacity.  There is no justification for such things.

Here is the odd thing, at least to me.  At just about every other film festival (Sundance, the TCM Classic Film Festival, South by Southwest, the San Diego Comic Con, even the LDS Film Festival devoted to Mormon films), I could submit my request for a press pass and have it granted.  In fact, I get e-mails asking me to come and cover these events (school, work, and expense mostly preventing me from doing so).  The Plaza Classic Film Festival, on the other hand, has no Press Coordinator to which to contact, as far as I know.  I figure they think the El Paso Times coverage is enough, but for the life of me I don't understand why they seem to think that the PCFF is just for locals. 

I know the reason I am left out in the cold is because frankly no one knows who I am or what I do.  A prophet in his hometown type situation I figure.  I don't know what I can do to get the PCFF or local film figures to know that I am here to help them.  I welcome suggestions.

As such, there is apart from a review of The Deer Hunter (which I would have reviewed in any case as part of my Best Picture retrospective), there will be no coverage for the 2015 Plaza Classic Film Festival.  I am most disappointed. 



I had thought that maybe for next year's Plaza Classic Film Festival, I could rent a horse, get a long blonde wig, and ride Lady Godiva-style into the theater lobby, waving a gigantic OFCS banner in front of El Paso's elite.

Knowing my luck though, they'd probably just ignore me then too and it would just blow up in my face.  Somehow, I get the sense that if anyone at the PCFF should stumble upon this, they'd dismiss me as a nutter (Master's Degree in Library Science and five years professional film reviewing experience be damned).

Again, it is not open hostility but a lack of knowledge that created this problem.  A Press Coordinator could have prevented all this.  With all due respect, there is more press in El Paso than The El Paso Times

What's a certified film critic to do?