Weekend Film Recommendation: Canyon Passage

canyon-passageMy April-long tribute to Dana Andrews continues this week with an underappreciated 1946 frontier yarn made in glorious Technicolor by an extraordinarily unlikely director: Black and white film noir master Jacques Tourneur! The result is an entertaining, highly original (if blandly titled) Western: Canyon Passage.

The plot, set in mid-19th century Oregon, is not easy to summarize, which turns out to be one of the film’s virtues. Throughout there is a movie-length story thread concerning whether brave, restless entrepreneur Logan Stuart (Andrews) will marry a sweet stay-at-home woman (Patricia Roc) or end up with the sassy, adventurous flame-haired beauty the audience knows he belongs with (Susan Hayward) if only she were not engaged to his friend (Brian Donlevy). But there is much more to the film than that. It’s a slice of frontier life, told through different lenses. Indeed, the film’s highlight is an extended sequence of slight relevance to the love triangle storyline in which the pioneers raise a cabin for a newly married couple. The panoramic tale also includes subplots about the cruelty of “justice” in towns where no police or courts exist, the workings and risks of gold mining-based economic systems and how boredom leads small town dwellers to seek out destructive entertainments (e.g., egging on fistfights, engaging in compulsive gambling). Some critics found Canyon Passage too “plotty” but if you step back from the details and see it more as the story of a entire frontier community, it’s unified and not a bit overstuffed.

That style of storytelling is one sign that Tourneur clearly didn’t want to make a typical Western. Another is that the first closeup doesn’t occur until 15 minutes into the movie! Throughout the film, Tourneur keeps the camera at a distance from his stars (thereby driving producer Walter Wanger batty), which makes the audience think about the many characters in the town as a whole rather than just seeing them as background for the stars.

What makes Andrews’ commanding performance so enjoyable is the way he plays off three other talented actors. His flirty, forbidden jousting with Hayward has palpable electricity, his dedication to his flawed friend Donlevy is both inspiring and sad, and his conflict with a vicious local bully (Ward Bond) is gripping. Bond was a physical powerhouse, and his brutal character here is what Jud Fry would have been in Oklahoma! if he had regularly consumed steroids. The physical confrontation between Andrews and Bond, one of the film’s highlights, left both men bruised and in need of stitches (that’s an juicy detail in the engaging Carl Rollyson biography about Andrews that I recommended here). Other fine performances in the film are turned in by Andy Devine, Halliwell Hobbes and a then-unknown Lloyd Bridges. When such a large cast is uniformly good, you should credit the director, so hats off to Tourneur for his skill.

hoagyWhether you find this film to be outstanding or just pretty good may well turn on whether you are a fan of Hoagy Carmichael, who had an enormously successful and unique multi-decade career in Hollywood. Continue Reading…

The Fetishization of Elite University Admission

A friend of mine who served on a local school board attended multiple meetings in which parents complained about the way GPA and class rankings were calculated for high school students in AP courses. After hours of passionate discussion driven by a very small number of parents, he lost his temper and said “We have thousands of kids in our district and I am sick of spending all our time debating whether the few of them who want to go to Princeton are going to end up at Dartmouth instead”.

I thought of my friend when I read the recent New York Times story with the doleful title Best, Brightest and Rejected. My university’s very low rate of acceptance is the kick-off point for the article, which mentions the case of Mr. Isaac Madrid. Isaac does not understand why he didn’t get in to Stanford. Tragically enough, the story informs us, he will instead have to go to Yale.

Yale! Congratulations to Isaac and family! The NYT photo makes Isaac look pensive and maybe a little sad, when it ought to show him jumping up and down with joy because he is a no doubt amazing young person who is heading off to a world-class university.

Stanford University is a great place to get an education and I am lucky to be a professor here. But no one’s life chances break down into two mutually exclusive options: Stanford admission vs. Chronic unemployment and homelessness. Whether it’s intentional or not, the extraordinary amount of focus NYT and other prominent media outlets give to the importance of getting into ONE PARTICULAR ELITE UNIVERSITY (Usually Harvard or Stanford) distorts the perspective of many young people and their parents. I would not have believed it until I got here and saw it up close, but there really are parents with great kids heading off to great schools who consider their children not being admitted to Stanford a disaster, a crime against humanity, or both.

I think the media could do a public service by focusing coverage of university admissions more proportionately on the kinds of institutions that most people attend (e.g., my alma mater). As part of that, I would hope they could bring alive for anxious parents and young people the reality that there are lots of terrific places to get a college education and that most of the successful and fulfilled people in the country did not attend the handful of small, private institutions whose admissions are the subject of outsized media attention.

RBC’s candidate for Harvard Overseer

Whenever I hear the term “Harvard Board of Overseers” I imagine a bunch of slavedrivers with whips. That, of course, is grossly unfair: Harvard, like the rest of New England Brahmin society, benefited from slavery, but largely – after the abolition of the legal slave trade in 1808 – without getting its hands dirty: mostly by financing slaveholding. Pecunia non olet, and all that.

It’s also unfair because, as far as I understand it (that is to say, not very far) the real muscle lies with the self-perpetuating Harvard Corporation (“The President and Fellows of Harvard College”) rather than with the elected Overseers.

Presumably most RBC readers were, even in their youth, wise enough to avoid what is laughingly called a “Harvard education” as undergradutes. Most, but not all. And it’s harder to avoid catching a dose of Veritas when seeking a professional degree or doing a Ph.D., so it seems likely that some of you got caught in the toils, or were even forced to take a Harvard degree (without the purported education) as the price of getting tenure. (The Harvard statutes require that every tenured professor hold a Harvard M.A., and the degree is ritually conferred as needed.)

If for any of those reasons you are entitled to sing “Fight Fiercely, Hahvahd,” you are also entitled to vote for the Overseers. That being the case, you will certainly wish to vote for the RBC’s own Lesley Friedman Rosenthal, General Counsel at Lincoln Center, author of a wonderful book on lawyering for not-for-profits, and my friend since she was a sophomore on the banks of the Charles and I was a graduate student who needed help finding footnotes for my thesis. Lesley’s brand of polite, even-tempered, utterly reasonable bomb-throwing is just what the place could use.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Where the Sidewalk Ends

where-the-sidewalk-ends-1950My tribute to Dana Andrews continues with the film with which he closed out the most glittering decade of his career. In 1944, Andrews and his frequent co-star Gene Tierney, Director/Producer Otto Preminger and Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle made Laura, a classic film of high society longing, love and murder. Take that same foursome, move the story setting down significantly in economic strata and add a dose of brutality and you have this week’s film recommendation: 1950′s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The story, as conveyed through one of Ben Hecht’s many outstanding scripts, centers on Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews). Dixon’s hatred of gangsters is legendary, and leads him to relentlessly un-Miranda-type behavior toward thugs. He has a particular grudge against mob boss Tommy Scalise (an oleaginous Gary Merrill), for reasons that are revealed during the film. While investigating a murder in which Scalise is involved, Dixon loses his temper one time too many, resulting in a tragic death which he tries to cover up. He hopes to frame Scalise, but suspicion instead falls on an innocent man (sweetly played by Tom Tully) whose dishy daughter (Tierney) turns Dixon’s head. The dark story twists like a knife from there, up to and including the very last scene.

The film has some superb noir cinematography, with the standout shot being a long, fixed point take of a car with Dixon and some mobsters in it approaching and entering a car elevator (in which LaShelle cannily placed the camera) and then rising up off the screen as the men in the car eye each other suspiciously. There are also a number of arresting shots that draw the viewers’ attention to two distinct points on the screen. My favorite is when Andrews is about to tell Tierney the truth but then turns toward the viewer, his face partly shaded. She then talks over his shoulder at the camera, as his face is transfixed with shame and doubt. Preminger set up many scenes this way in his career, challenging the viewer to track both external action and internal reactions in the same shots.

Who gets the credit for these effective framings and the movie’s overall cool look? Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute To Dana Andrews Begins

Dana AndrewsRBC Weekend Film Recommendation takes a break from recommending movies this week in favor of recommending the next best thing: A book about the movies! And with it I commence a month-long tribute to Dana Andrews. I have always found him intriguing because he was such a towering star in the 1940s, anchoring films of superlative quality that were also wildly popular with audiences, including A Walk in the Sun, Laura and of course The Best Years of Our Lives. But beginning in the 1950s his career dissipated very rapidly and few people today even remember his name. What happened to this talented and toothsome actor, who seemed poised to dominate the screen for decades as did similar performers such as Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck?

That’s one of the central questions addressed by Carl Rollyson’s fine recent biography Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. Nothing else written about Andrews over the years pulls together so many sources of information so skillfully, making this likely the definitive biography of the man for all time. Crucially, Rollyson obtained the support of Andrews’ family and with it access to home movies, letters and anecdotes that get beneath the glossy images that the Hollywood publicity machine creates for its stars.

Rollyson makes clear that Andrews’ path to Hollywood was neither certain nor easy. Dana’s domineering, colorful father was a Baptist preacher in Texas and money was at times tight in the large Andrews clan. Dana and his siblings worked at odd jobs to keep the family afloat, and even as he was later getting a foothold in Southern California theater, he was still driving trucks to make ends meet during The Great Depression. His humble origins may have accounted for why, throughout his life, he remained an unpretentious regular guy more comfortable with the average person on the street than the glitzy Hollywood types who came to surround him when he became a star. It also helped account for him later becoming an avid New Dealer who loathed the political rise of Ronald Reagan (Both Reagan and Andrews would serve as President of the Screen Actors Guild).

Through extracts from love letters Rollyson movingly conveys the central conflict of Andrews’ young adult life. Dana had moved to California and was excited by what he might achieve there. But he was still strongly attached to his long-time girlfriend back in Texas. A painful choice had to be made and he ultimately broke off the engagement with the girl-next-door and married a woman he had met in his new life. Yet he stayed lifelong friends with his first girlfriend, whom he probably recognized understood him and loved him in a way that the many women who later swooned over the famous star never would.

After success in theater, Andrews began to land movie parts of growing significance. He was the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity that was cherished in that era. Outwardly strong, noble and fearless on screen, he simultaneously conveyed, in a minimalistic and naturalistic way, churning emotion underneath. Clearly, he had a handsome face, but it was what was going on underneath that transfixed most movie-goers. Rollyson dissects Andrews’ most critical roles well, helping the reader understand both Andrews’ talents and how some directors (but not others) knew how to maximize them.

In the mid-to-late 1940s, Andrews was one of the most beloved, most highly-paid movie actors in the world. But how many people remember him today compared to Bogart, Peck and Fonda, or even Fred MacMurray, who attained similar heights in that era? Andrews’ steep decline fascinates Rollyson and he goes a long way towards sorting out why it happened. Continue Reading…

Brazilian Music 2: Early sambistas

We might as well start a tour of the most famous and distinctive music of Brazil with the wonderful recipe and hagiology in Samba da Bénção (“Blessings Samba”) by Vinicius de Moraes.   Vinicius was a remarkable figure: poet, diplomat, and songwriter who partnered with Jobim and (as in this song) the guitarist Baden Powell.   I think de Moraes has it right in emphasizing that samba, even without lyrics, is not just party dance music, but weaves together (in various proportions), sadness, joy, and resignation. There’s a good English translation here.  He also gives us a sort of hall of fame, thanking a constellation of great sambistas from early days to the present. You could skip this whole post and just hop across tracks by the masters called out in this song, and you should anyway, because I will not hit more than a third of them. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Contact

Now that everyone is agog with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I thought it might be fitting to devote this weekend’s movie recommendation to a film that draws on another one of Sagan’s gifts to the world: Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Sagan’s Contact (1997).

Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, who is just the kind of astrophysicist you hope fills the hallways of NASA. She’s bright, dedicated, and derives inexhaustible fulfilment from listening to radio signals from space. Despite her recognized potential in graduate school, she has failed to publish influential papers and secure large grants; more devastating still is her failure to select an opportune research topic for her career. She pursues what is generally acknowledged to be a futile interest in the SETI program – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. However, just as she is about to be shut down by the powers that be, she discovers an unmistakeably salutatory signal coming from the distant star system Vega. Arroway’s project quickly becomes a race to decipher the puzzle that the Vegans have transmitted. Once it becomes clear that the signal contains a set of instructions for a machine that will transport one person to Vega, an international effort to build the machine is set in motion. That effort is accompanied by the determination about who gets to be the first person to communicate with aliens on behalf of humankind.

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Two of Sagan’s favorite preoccupations ensure at least minimal cerebral engagement for the viewer. The first is the noble yet fragile ambition of the scientific pursuit of truth. This is low-hanging fruit for any script-writer looking to deploy stirring rhetoric about how precious the human sense of adventure is, and how necessary it is that that sense be carefully nurtured. The second is the dialogue between faith and reason. Against Arroway’s unremitting reliance on empirical scepticism, Matthew McConnaughey appears as a priest who represents the voice of those who believe in the existence of God. As might be expected from Zemeckis’ characteristically schmaltzy directorial style, both of these themes are handled fairly tritely. Ultimately, similarities are emphasized and differences are minimized, and everyone gets along just dandy. The scientists are reminded that their profession relies on more than a few leaps of faith; the believers come to respect the value of the scientists engaged in a common enterprise; “research” is re-fashioned into a international collaborative kum-bay-ah that anoints the USofA as the scholars-in-chief. Yippee and huzzah.

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However, other preoccupations that are largely ancillary to the main plot are commendably handled. Firstly, the difficulties Arroway encounters in being taken seriously bring to the fore the challenges faced by women in academia. Tom Skerritt plays David Drumlin, the director of the NSF, who mansplains to Arroway just as a curmudgeonly supervisor disappointed in his star student squandering her potential would. Secondly, the need to secure soft money, which occupies the entirety of the film’s second act, highlights how the dependency of scholarship on private donors can frustrate or pervert the scientific enterprise. Out of that miasma appears John Hurt as S.R. Hadden, the wealthy deus ex machina who funds Arroway’s project when no-one else is willing to do so. Although Hadden saves the day, Arroway’s desperate reliance on his money shows just how delicate ‘pie-in-the-sky’ research really is.

Rather than embed the trailer for the film, I’ll instead leave you with the opening shot, which provides a beautiful reminder of the humbling insignificance of our planet.

Weekend Film Recommendation: And Then There Were None

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Agatha’s Christie’s tale of 10 strangers on a remote island who are mysteriously killed off one by one has been adapted countless times on stage, on television and on the big screen. But it will be hard to ever top the 1945 version that was the highlight of the otherwise forgettable English-language phase of French film director Rene Clair’s career: And Then There Were None.

The story opens with a wonderful extended non-verbal sequence in which a group of disparate people eye each other curiously on a rowboat that is making its way to a lonely island. They soon discover that they have been invited for a weekend trip from which they are not expected to return. The owner of the mansion in which they are staying had pledged to kill them all as vengeance for their past misdeeds. Who is the killer, and is he — or she — actually one of the guests?

Christie’s story is contrived beyond belief but is so much fun twist by twist that audiences have never cared. The mordant wit is a particular plus throughout, and keeps the audience smiling even as the bodies pile up. The film version uses the more upbeat ending from the stage version rather than the tenebrous wrap up from the book, which was probably a good decision given the wartime audience.

Clair turns in near-Hitchcock level direction in the comedy-romance-suspense vein, and the cast is roses. Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston sparkle as the leads, Judith Anderson is brilliant as always as one of the guest/victim/suspects, C. Aubrey Smith offers an agreeably demented take on his Commander McBragg routine, and Roland Young (who was hilarious in a prior RBC recommendation, Ruggles of Red Gap) is a hoot as a private detective whose brain works at half speed.

Last but not least among its virtues, this is a film that will appeal to a broad age range of audience. I know myself because I watched it twice with a gap of 30 years in between and loved it both times.

And Then There Were None is in the public domain so I embed it here for your viewing pleasure.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Intruder

the-intruder-6It is pretty hard to imagine a Hollywood Producer sitting in a meeting in 1962 and saying “I want a daring and powerful film about racism in the civil rights era…get Roger Corman and Bill Shatner on the phone pronto!”. Yet the B-Movie king and television’s most beloved overactor did indeed make such a movie, and it still packs a punch today. It’s this week’s film recommendation: The Intruder.

The story opens with an angelic-looking charmer (Shatner) named Adam Cramer arriving at a small Southern town for the purpose of “social work”. He is boyish and innocent-seeming at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is a member of a John Birch-type society and intends to stir up racial animosity concurrent with the arrival of school integration. He preys on weakness in all its forms and foments hatred and violence which spins out of control. Disgusted by Cramer, a fence-sitting newspaper editor (Frank Maxwell) has an attack of conscience and moves to side decisively with integration, at horrible cost to himself and his family.

Maybe because it was his first movie leading role or because Corman kept him under control, Shatner is unusually restrained here and it really works well for him. Then young and handsome, he is particularly effective at portraying seductive yet smarmy sexuality. Most of the extras and small roles were people of the town in which the crew filmed and were eventually chased out of because of the dirty laundry the movie was airing. Charles Barnes as the high school senior leading the first Black students into the previously segregated school movingly conveys strength, dignity and sadness all at once. This was a role from the heart for him as the prior year he had actually done the same thing in real life.

Although The Intruder can be experienced as a film about racism, it can be even better appreciated as a mesmerizing character study. Adam Cramer is an admixture of the calm salesman and someone desperate to obtain, a bully and a weakling, an Adonis who is deeply ugly. The development of this strange yet realistic character is the best thing about Charles Beaumont’s script. For someone with a tragically short life, Beaumont had significant artistic impact, including co-creating The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling and going on with Corman and much of the cast here to make the first adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s work for the big screen (The above-average horror film, The Haunted Palace).

Corman was known for making cheap, unpretentious grindhouse films about motorcycles, monsters and mayhem (Including Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, one of which was recommended here at RBC). He also, famously, never lost money on a movie. Until The Intruder that is, which was denied bookings in much of The South and in other parts of the country where the film was considered too controversial. It was re-titled multiple times to try to get it into theaters (as “Shame” and later with the cringe worthy exploitation title “I Hate Your Guts!”), but with minimal success. As the film’s reputation grew and it was the subject of some recent documentaries and festivals, it finally broke even four decades after its release.

The only thing I didn’t love about The Intruder was the climax, which though still downbeat comes out a bit happier than I expect it would have in real life. But if Corman had gone for complete realism his film would never have been released at all. This was daring stuff for its time, and both for its themes and character development The Intruder holds up as an impressive piece of cinema over 50 years later.

The Intruder is in the public domain and I am posting it here. It took only the first six minutes for me to be completely hooked.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

A Review of Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Johann Koehler’s resurrection of a wonderful Thomas De Quincey quote reminds me of the hold his most famous work still exerts today. A decade ago, I had a chance to explain the enduring appeal of Confessions of an English opium eater in the journal Addiction:

In 1821, Baldwin’s London Magazine published, in two installments, an evocative, haunting account of habitual opium use by the pseudonymous X.Y.Z. The author provided a careful cost-benefit analysis of his drug use career, gave a meticulous account of his use pattern down to the precise drops of laudanum consumed per day and per week, offered a unblinking description of life on the street and its villains and victims, and closed with one of the most vivid accounts ever written of drug-induced dreams. This is no memoir of recovery: at its conclusion the author is still using opium. Further, despite an expressed belief that he was on the verge of being able to abstain, the author kept on using opium (and writing about it) for the rest of his life.

The author’s real name was Thomas de Quincey (b. 1785 – d. 1859). He was a short, wan, elfin-featured, 36-year old Oxford University dropout who had long been on the edge of important circles without completely belonging to them. De Quincey made friends among the gentry and had an inheritance from his merchant father, but was neither titled nor rich. The ‘de’ in his lofty sounding appellation was a fabrication on his part, and by living as if he were independently wealthy he was well on his way to bankruptcy even before he began using opium. He chased after the famous poets of the era with the devotion of a rock and roll band groupie and insinuated himself into their social circles without ever being perceived as their literary peer. His yearning for Lake School-level fame and acceptance is visible in his writing when he mimics the style and themes of his fellow opium-eater Samuel Coleridge, and approvingly quotes William Wordsworth. But de Quincey needn’t have worried. His autobiography, which was reprinted in book form in 1822 with his real name revealed, became an international best seller that gave him more than an intimation of literary immortality.

The book’s importance stems partly from its place in literary history as the first extended English language autobiographical account of drug addiction. The word ‘autobiography’ had just entered the English lexicon, and it conveyed to the British mind suspicions of being egoistic, shameless, or even worse, French. In his opening pages, de Quincey raises all these worries himself, but argues that his work is not Rousseau-esque wallowing in personal reminiscence but a respectable ‘extract from the life of a scholar’ (A subtitle he underlined on the original handwritten, manuscript page, see Lindop). Reflecting the historical periods his life would straddle, de Quincey married a Romantic’s belief that universal truths could be revealed in deeply personal experience with a Victorian’s faith in objective scientific description. By making a dispassionate study of his drug use and his interior life, he intended, like a good natural scientist, to educate his readers about the world.

Why did Confessions of an English Opium Eater draw more notice than other equally well-crafted books of the period? Contrary to what a modern reader might think, de Quincey’s opium use per se was not particularly shocking in his day. Continue Reading…