Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Saul Bass In My Bathroom Tile

If it wasn't for the pesky bobby pin that disappeared on the bathroom floor and forced me to a hands and knees position, I never would have noticed the resemblance the off-white tiles and gray grout have to Saul Bass's thick artistic tendencies. Admittedly, I don't know much about design. Admittedly, I don't really know what to say about Saul Bass's beautifully simple, sometimes stark to an uncomfortable degree, movie posters and titles of the 1950s and 60s, when movie posters/titles and art began to merge for the first time and shed the world of pulp (appropriately enough, at the same time the old studio system was losing its hold over movies and their approved subject matter). No, I really don't know what to say that probably hasn't already been said as far as art and expression and visual culture, except that Saul Bass was as much a part of the awakening '50s as any movie director.

The film that convinces me of this fact is The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), the movie that caused Otto Preminger to say "fuck it" and give us the first picture publicly unapproved by the industry and welcomed with open arms by a post-war movie public that was fed up with all the sugarcoating. The fact that it stars Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict, the all-American crooner, is another score for the gritty loving realists. The fact that he is nothing short of groundbreaking in the role of the struggling drummer and card dealer is icing on the cake.

The Man With the Golden Arm was made 10 years before The Sound of Music, but, like many movie lovers, I'm sure I'm not alone in associating Eleanor Parker with the perfectly coiffed Viennese baroness who nearly ruined things for Maria. How silly of us all, for it was Eleanor Parker who played a single working woman way back in 1944's One for the Book/ The Voice of the Turtle (it was not the more conventional, yet admittedly adorable elopement with Ronald Reagan at the end, but that spacious apartment she rented on her own, a rare occurrence in a pre-1950s film when wartime housing was often portrayed as patriotically shared, that appealed to a teenager ready to leave the nest). It was Eleanor Parker who endured prison life in the noir-esque Caged (1950), had an abortion behind her husband's back in Detective Story (1951), and suffered from abusive-resulting multiple personality disorder in Lizzie (1957). Ms. Parker was not partial to frou-frou roles, and even the slightly dark yet vulnerable undertones she gives off as Baroness Schraeder are evidence of this. So we really should have known, should have been completely aware of her ability to nail the pathetically fragile and deceitful wife of a drug addict to the falsely sacrificial cross. How appropriate that this luminous beaut with the breathy voice play such a role opposite Kim Novak's bosomy and supportive mistress. I can't help but think of Ingrid Bergman's barmaid Ivy knocking Lana Turner's Jekyll and Hyde good girl for a loop. She smartly fought for the role switch. She understood. And so did Parker. Of course, Parker's desperation, her paralyzing fear of loneliness and desertion make her a much more dangerous woman than fun-loving Ivy. And when she's found out at the end, when her treachery is naked and exposed, she plays it like a caged animal being taunted and poked by sticks, no longer the deceitful wife who quite literally drove her husband to the needle. She shrinks from taloned lioness to terrified kitten in a matter of seconds, and it is quite a thing to watch.

 The guilt, destruction, and fear oozing out of the film's performances (all top-notch) are validated by Saul Bass's title design. The first time his thick lines and jagged fingers appear to Elmer Bernstein's equally superb jazz soundtrack you know you are in for something dark, and hard, and deliciously new--the rawness of what this must have felt like to a 1955 audience has hardly aged with time, because I felt it too. The golden arm reference is two-fold: the arm of shooting up, and the arm of Frankie Machine's card dealing talents. Pulled in competing directions, Frankie is at once trying to withstand Zosch's whistle announcing guilt trips, avoid his dealer's persuasive (and creepy) promises of peace and comfort, land a job as a drummer sans shaky hands, and, ultimately, reject all of the destructive callings of his previous life while living in the same town and cavorting with the same crowd that continues to use and abuse him. He is broken, and crooked, and reaching out. The only periods of true peace and comfort he achieves are with Molly, equally broken and struggling--Novak makes it seem as if every high-heeled step Molly takes is steeped in hopelessness, and yet Frankie's well-being is a hopeless task she'll willingly fight for, so he fights for it too. The hard-to-watch cold turkey scene is proof enough of this.

Bass went on to create posters and titles for Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Psycho, and North By Northwest, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and a slew of others you can peruse here. You can also see how new DVD releases are butchering Bass's talent here (if you, you know, want to be a little depressed by the state of marketing). But it was really Golden Arm that started it all, that announced a change in both movies and audiences, and that utilized fabulously inseparable artwork that still inspires today in the titles of Catch Me If You Can, Burn After Reading, and even the animated recesses of Monsters, Inc. Who would have thought an arm cut out of paper could work such wonders?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

15 Movie Questions

Though this has absolutely nothing to do with the following post, I feel I must share the fact that I am in a really good mood today. (And someone just walked by in a lime green Mad Hatter hat, and my mood has lifted even higher. Fun people come into toy stores.) Yes, I am at work on the most beautiful day Portland has had all year (we've broken 70! take that Seattle), yes, I've had an annoying headache since waking up, and, yes, my food stamp benefits don't come through for another week, but, damn it all, the sun is finally out in Portland, I work at a frakking toy store, and someone has just given me an excuse to make a list. And I love making lists. Especially when they pertain to movies. So here goes...

1. Movie you love with a passion.

I don't care what anyone says; not even the wonderful Self-Styled Siren can sway me with her perfectly strung words. I will defend Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938) until my death. And possibly after that.

2. Movie you vow never to watch.

It just ain't gonna happen. I mean, look at all that pink.

3. Movie that literally left you speechless.

I first watched The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a silent film class. I was left not only speechless, but with a lump in my throat the size of an apple, and tears that would not quit. I was literally shocked when the lights went up and I found myself surrounded by others. That is what a damn fine movie does. 

4. Movie you always recommend.

The Apartment (1960). It stands the test of time so well, caters to both sexes, and is a great way to prove black-and-white movies are fabulous. Plus, Lemmon and MacLaine are adorable.

5. Actor/actress you always watch no matter how crappy the movie.

I think I'm going to have to blatantly steal Rachel from The Girl with the White Parasol's answer. Yes, I definitely have to: Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart. Why, oh why did they never do a picture together? Even when the movies suck (honestly, though, I can't think of any truly sucky movie that either was involved in), or they are not my cup of tea (both gained quite big reputations in the western genre, which I usually avoid like a family of cockroaches), still, they are incredible.

6. Actor/actress you don't get the appeal for.

Contemporarily speaking, I would have to go with Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman, who have a knack for simply playing themselves over, and over, and over again. If we're talking classics, though, which I obviously always am, up until last year it would have been: Robert Ryan....really? But then I saw The Set-Up and he was redeemed for all of those repulsive characters I have never been able to stand (and which I now agree attest to acting abilities after all). Until about 4 seconds ago it most definitely would have been: John Wayne....really? And then I came across this:

And now I am confused and bewildered and all alone and moving on to the next question.

7. Actor/actress, living or dead, you'd love to meet.

This is a tricky one because, honestly, I feel most actors are far too intense, hammy, awkward, or intimidating to actually enjoy a meeting with (I mean, what could you possibly say to Garbo, Hepburn, or Davis). I like to think Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant would be both fun and down to earth. I'd also give anything to hear Carole Lombard's infamously foul mouth.

8. Sexiest actor/actress you've seen. (Picture required)

Joel McCrea. (Paul Newman is just too easy.) The way this man lazily paws at Claudette Colbert and Jean Arthur is enough to make any woman quiver.

9. Dream cast.

Leading man: Cary Grant
Leading woman: Barbara Stanwyck
Anti-hero: Lew Ayres (too underrated)
Anti-heroine: Gloria Grahame
Not-too-sugary-cute-child: Peggy Ann Garner
Villainous duo: George Sanders & Anton Walbrook
Femme fatale: Olivia de Havilland (she should have been bad more often)
Comic relief: S.Z. Sakall & Ann Sothern
Bumbling detectives: William Powell & Irene Dunne (damn! why did they never do a film together? Wait, they did. Whew.)

10. Favorite actor pairing.

There are so many great ones out there, but I think what it really comes down to is this:

Grant and Dunne

11. Favorite movie setting.

Singing in the Rain (1952).

The 20s interpreted by the 50s. The talkies, the rain, the garb, and it looks like a lot of fun.

12. Favorite decade for movies.

Silly question.

13. Chick flick or action movie?

Ugh...really? That's the ultimatum? Chick flick, but only in the literal sense that applies to one movie, and one movie only:

14. Hero, villain, or anti-hero?

'Nuff said.

15. Black-and-white or color?

Despite a recent viewing of The Red Shoes, which dazzled to the point of inspiring a header picture change, I have to stick with my true love.

They just can't make 'em like they used to.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Red Shoes

I have avoided watching The Red Shoes (1948) for over a year now after a friend gifted me a copy. I avoided it for two years before that when I could have easily borrowed it from the same friend, I avoided it when I became fascinated with Kate Bush's album of the same title (saucy devil played by Miranda Richardson in the video), and I avoided it for several years before that when I still lived with my parents and TCM aired it repeatedly.

The fairytale, if you're not already aware, is horrific. No, scratch that. It's fucking horrific. Leave it to Hans Christian Andersen's warped imagination to scare the bejeezus out of you and make you want to cloud yourself in a pure, white veil, never looking in the mirror again, never wanting anything ever again but to be a good little girl and go to Heaven. In the fairytale, a selfish little girl, adopted by a rich woman after her mother dies, wants a pair of beautiful red dancing shoes. She gets them, and they take on a life of their own. They dance whether she wants to or not, and they never leave her feet. Night and day, rain or shine, they won't stop dancing. Eventually, the girl has her feet amputated (amputated! what kind of fairytale includes amputation?!?) but the shoes still do not stop--they continue to dance with her amputated feet inside them. Inside them.

Now, can you see why the childhood memory and imprinted visuals of this terrible tale has left me a bit anxious to see the film? But this is what happens when it's rainy and cold, when you've just set up your projector in a new apartment (which, of course, must be broken in with a visually fantastic movie), and when your friend comments on the "redness" of your apartment at the exact moment that you open the first box entitled "DVDs" and find The Red Shoes right on top, Moira Shearer's flawless en pointe staring back at you. This is what happens: you give in and watch the damn movie.

For the first ten minutes I was terribly nervous, and for the next 123 we were completely entranced (at least, I was completely entranced, and being so entranced I could not accurately determine if he was also just as entranced--because I was, you know, entranced). The acting was dreamlike; I was surprised to find that Ms. Shearer made only a handful of appearances on film, this being her most well-known. The infamous dance sequence, the actual ballet performance of The Red Shoes, was the most beautiful, the most disturbing, the most colorfully stimulating, and quite possibly the most wonderfully artistic dance sequence on film I've ever seen (though Cyd Charisse and the green dress are still up there, artistic merit warranted or not). So comfortable is this film, all of its parts and players, within the realm of art, that sometimes you can't tell if you're watching a surrealist painting in the works, or a double exposure of a sunset and flame. Or perhaps you have truly just teleported to a world where color and movement are on a level of existence we could not have imagined- except Powell and Pressburger could. And did. In 1948.

I can't promise with as equal conviction that this film will change your life as a friend who has assured me that watching The Wire will change mine (this has yet to be confirmed, or even tested), but it certainly changed my perceptions of early dance films--namely, that they could be strange and daring without sacrificing any of the Technicolor pow! associated with 1940s and 1950s musicals. Instead, The Red Shoes takes the pow! to new and unexplored terrain, as if introducing it to its own potential. Powell and Pressburger were famous for being ahead of their time, and that is entirely apparent in The Red Shoes. The tragedy underlying this film is not how life imitates art, though Vicki's fate is pretty gruesome, but that P & P never touched the musical/dance genre again. Maybe there was just nothing left to do with it after Vicki lay broken and still.