Archive | June, 2012

Billy Wilder: A Defense

19 Jun


There’s been a recent dustup amongst movie critics. A well-known British film critic has relegated Billy Wilder to second tier status, and film critics big and small all over the world are responding. (This has happened at least twice before, first with Andrew Sarris and later with David Thompson. Wilder is always teetering, it seems.)

Here’s my two cents.

Wilder was a Berliner first, working as a reporter during the Weimar Republic, wandering the burlesque shows amidst the extreme inflation and vicious poverty, the stalking serial killers and the preponderance of philosophers. As the Nazis began to consolidate power he, being Jewish, fled to Paris. From Paris he soon fled to Los Angeles.

From two of the intellectual capitals of the world to a corrupt, one-pony town stealing water from other states while a group of wealthy visionaries staked their claim on the dreams of the whole world. The early 1930s and the start of the talking pictures; it was here he started his film career.

Wilder belonged to a group of émigrés—most of them Austrian, German, Czech, or Polish but of Jewish descent—who fled Europe due to persecution in the 1930s. This group included Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Josef Von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, and others. As a group they shaped American cinema. (For what is noir, really, but German expressionism combined with a distinctly American post-war existential angst?)

He was a short, witty, puckish little man who struggled with English and dated only American girls to erase his accent. He adapted quickly, but never lost a sense of bewilderment about his adopted country. The movies were now utilizing sound, and he made good early on as a screenwriter.

He was a writer first, and then a director. He made movies from the forties to the seventies, an astonishing four decades of moviemaking.

Wilder’s movies combine a cynical view of the human condition with a wry, often black humor. He loved dirty jokes, but due to the censors had to hide them in genteel language. The result is fabulous. Take, for example, a line from Marilyn Monroe from Some Like It Hot: “I used to sing with male bands, but I can’t afford it anymore.” (Translation: She’s had to pay for too many abortions, so better to travel with a female orchestra.) Course but in an elegant way, bleak, despairing even, but funny—these are Wilder’s hallmarks.

Jack Lemmon, selling his soul for job security, in The Apartment.

He made comedies. He made crime movies. He made romances, a legal thriller and even a prison camp movie, a la Le Grand Illusion. His movies often had a touch of the madcap about them, as if the absurdity of life, condensed to two hours, couldn’t quite be expressed without manic explosions in the plot.

Although he toyed with a variety of genres, Wilder was no hired gun. He often developed or co-wrote his movies, and stuck to a handful of themes. At the core of his oeuvre, Wilder held a belief that America, at its essence, was a brothel. Capitalism is prostitution; the pursuit of money has little room for dignity. His great films all have at their central characters trading sex for various things: stability, money, protection, status. Wilder saw that women were considered commodities, and that the only things they had to trade were their bodies, their dignity. And nowhere was this truer than in Hollywood, where female stars were used until aged and worn out, then forgotten.

Psychosexual weirdness in the great Sunset Boulevard.

In movie after movie, Wilder puts his characters through an extreme ethical test. For how much, he kept asking, will a person compromise his/her most cherished beliefs?

The answer, usually, is not much. He often tacked on happy endings, but touched with a bitter melancholy.

Re-occurring themes, an immense body of work, a closet full of awards and a reputation for being a decent guy. So why is this titan of American cinema always in danger of slipping into the kingdom of the forgotten?


The answer is color. Billy Wilder was really two directors. The first was economical, taut, clever, funny and a creator of some of the great films of the American canon. The second was flabby, inconsistent, histrionic, jittery and a touch cluttered. The dividing line was the move from black and white cinematography to color. Wilder was a genius with the former, and weak in the latter. He isn’t alone. The awful truth is that many of the masters of black and white were horrid shooting in color. Frank Capra and Otto Preminger both suffered from the same problem. As did dozens of others. Just as the silent film directors suffered in the transition to talkies, so did the black and white directors suffer in moving to color. Not only do the compositions often look cluttered, but the acting is also often ham-fisted and lame.

Black and white has a flattening effect of the backgrounds. The angle of objects, the shadows, the curvature of the walls, these things mattered. The old masters used the shadows to create atmospherics. Watch Clark Gable carrying Carole Lombard across a moonlit creekbed in It Happened One Night, one of the most beautiful shots from the 1930s. But revisit Pocketful of Miracles, and you’ll see that the compositions are crowded, ugly. Preminger made gorgeous black and white films, but with Hurry Sundown, the movie looks cheap, as if painted with cut-rate paints. And a truism of movies is this: if a movie looks bad, then it will play bad, no matter how talented or earnest its creators. European directors weren’t immune either. Fellini, Antonioni, Renoir and Bunuel all made brilliant black and white movies but their color films suffer from the same batch of problems.

Two lovers about to commit murder, and one of the great film noir movies in Double Indemnity.

Back to Wilder. Stack Wilder’s best black and white movies—The Apartment, The Lost Weekend,; Stalag 17; Double Indemnity; Sabrina; Witness for the Prosecution; Some Like It Hot; Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole—against his color films—The Spirit of St. Louis; Irma La Douce; The Seven Year Itch; One, Two, Three; and The Front Page. He made one of the best romantic comedies of all time, one of the best legal thrillers, one of the funniest movies in history and two defining film noirs all in black and white. Meanwhile, his color films are forgettable, and at times downright mediocre.

His best films present a body of work that eclipses most of the big American directors. He belongs in the rarified company of Hitchcock, Ray, Hawks, Sturges, Wyler and Minnelli. He was a comic genius, who used his bitter view of human dynamics for comedy. He is, like John Huston, an essential director in the history of movies.

Just not in color.

(Here’s Jack Lemmon, meditating on his friend and former collaborator Billy Wilder for TCM. I love these things.)

Simone kicks the jams, part 2: Mellow Yellow

14 Jun

Well, normally she sings along.

Our jam sessions usually go like this: we break out the guitars, I tune mine, she plunks her way through two or three songs and then loses interest.

Anyway, “Mellow Yellow,” along with “We Are Young,” is Simone’s favorite song, and has been for over a year. Here she sort of screams a little, but she mostly just stared at the screen. (The addition of the computer made her nervous.) The result is mostly me. My guitar skills are meager, but what I lack in skill I make up for with enthusiasm.

If you listen closely, you can hear Pearl contribute near the beginning.


Simone meets my first crush, Barbra

10 Jun

Simone’s new favorite movie is Hello, Dolly!

She loves it. As it was one of my dad’s favorites, too, I watched it a lot when I was growing up. It isn’t cool—it’s too long and the acting is uneven—but it’s fun. But the acting is histrionic and spotty; even Walter Matthau, one of the great under-players in cinema, seems over the top. But some of the song/dance numbers are great, Gene Kelley was a very fine director, and it has a young Barbra Streisand. Simone changes into a dress and ballerina shoes when “Put On Your Sunday Best” comes on. It’s adorable.

Here she is, my first flame.

Streisand, it must be said, was my first crush. Blame What’s Up, Doc?, one of the few screwball comedies that hasn’t dated much at all. It’s still really good. Streisand is witty and sharp, conniving and gorgeous with those otherworldly eyes. She radiates a sexual intelligence, a charming worldliness. To my ten-year-old eyes, she was stunning. (There’s a scene where she stands up in a bathtub . . . and my chaste childhood self transformed, momentarily, into a pervert.) She was, in a word, the cat’s meow.

Yep, still the cat’s meow.

I next saw Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat, opposite John Segal. I haven’t seen it since I was 13, but I remember her being beautiful and funny, curvaceous, liberated. I can still see the black negligee with the purple paws.

I never really got over my crush on Barbra, even after I heard her middle brow records, saw Yentl. She was replaced with a variety of actresses in my youth: Donna Reed, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Kelly Kapowski. But she remains fixed in my memory, the beginning of something other than innocence and play and youth.

Revisiting her after all these years is a strange experience.

Simone, for her part, seems indifferent to Michael Crawford’s charms.

Pearl meets Italian Horror

6 Jun

One of Simone’s first movies was The Strangers. For Pearl—what’s wrong with me?—it was Inferno, by Dario Argento, a ghastly blast of cheesy Italian horror.

Argento is probably the best of the 1970s Italian horror directors, faint praise from me, although he has legions of fans. (Fulci is the other Italian horror director worth watching.) Argento makes two types of films: the Giallo, an Italian take on the police procedural, usually involving serial killers, and supernatural horror. His emphasis is on mutilation and dismemberment, and as technology has increased his films have become bloodier. (In his dotage, he’s upped the gore ante to obscene levels.) He’s a cult figure, popular with the cool kids, although why is as difficult to understand as most of his movies.

One of many nonsensical murders in Inferno. Note the weird hands.

Inferno is the middle film in a loose trilogy. Suspiria is the first, Mother of Tears the third. Each film follows a lonely young woman moving into a strange, possibly haunted, place, and each film has a different villainous witch trying to live forever (or come back from the dead) through ritualistic human sacrifice. Each film has scarred henchmen, weird creatures, decomposing corpses, decapitations, moody (overly) theatrical lighting, terrible voice over-dubbing (a problem that plagues most of Italian cinema, even Fellini), and plenty of carnage. His movies have no real narrative coherence. The scenes don’t often connect to each other, and might even be out of sequence. Fans call his style loose or even experimental; I think it’s cheap and underplanned. Inferno has characters wandering around and it isn’t always clear where they are or what they are doing. One prolonged scene near the beginning has a young woman drop into a sinkhole in the basement of a building and swim around. She eventually runs into a dislodged corpse. Inferno does has one thing going for it, a wacky unpredictability.

An underwater kingdom . . . in the basement of a high rise in New York.

Suspiria is the most loved of the bunch, the basis for much of his reputation. It’s worth watching, I suppose, but it’s nothing to write home about. It has a touch of fun about it, but just a touch.

Mother of Tears, however, is execrable, a vile, disgusting, repugnant exercise in entrails, sodomy and viscera. It’s one of the most hideous movies I’ve ever seen, which for anyone who knows my background says a lot. (It beats out Salo and Caligula, and stands tied with I Spit on Your Grave.) There’s no titillation or suspense, just a bloody escalator descending through a cacophony of horrors. There’s insertions and defenestration and chopped up organs and little wiggly dwarves that break people into bloody pieces. I would unwatch it, if I could.

The poster is scarier than the movie.

People will tell you that Argento is a great director, that his movies belong in the pantheon of horror,  but I can’t muster the enthusiasm. His movies are overacted. The scenes are stagey, and the tension is flattened by weak mood music. Opera is an exception, a very disturbing little movie about a woman who keeps getting put into a torturous position by a madman—nails are put on her eyelids so if she closes them to avoid the horrors performed for her sake, she’ll blind herself.

Argento (and Pulci) live in the bloody place. Their movies are, on the whole, unsophisticated and humorless. Which makes their enduring popularity so strange. Much of the Italian horror stands far below the mediocre horror movies by American hacks. The music is bad, the acting is bad, the lighting and technique often bad, too. It’s informed by a repulsion of the human body, but no real political or philosophical undercurrent. John Carpenter and David Cronenberg make horror movies out of their personal beliefs, anxieties, philosophies. Their films, even the weaker ones, don’t age.

Why I keep giving Argento a look, when there are movies by directors I love that I haven’t seen, is a mystery to me. Maybe there’s something to him after all.

As for Pearl, she slept through Inferno, tucked into my chest. I should have spent more time looking at her cute little face instead of the mediocre violence on the screen.