Category Archives: films

Enter the Soft Spoken Hero!

The world is full of people who want to take and hold center stage. But they are not necessarily the folks we remember with the most fondness. The soft spoken hero is often that person. He doesn’t take center stage, he earns a place in our hearts.

Gregory Peck was that sort of person. He was a very handsome man and a film star.

Image result for Gregory Peck

And you might think therefore, that he was full of himself. In fact, he was exactly the opposite. He was full of respect and kindness for others. And he had a warm sense of humor about himself and the people he knew.

You get a sense of that from this video about him. I especially enjoyed the interview segment from British TV in the middle of the clip.  Enjoy!



Reminiscing with Hemingway

Last night i watched Gregory Peck et al in the 1952 production of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”.

Hemingway was in his mid 30’s and on his second wife when he wrote the story.. He already had  published two successful novels, and had made a name for himself. But those stories take place in Europe. Hemingway wanted something more raw.  In 1933, he went on safari in East Africa and used his experiences from this trip to create a number of stories. Perhaps “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is the best of that lot. It was first published in Esquire in 1936.

Here is the thing — Hemingway was a relentless self promoter. None of the above stuff was done without the goal of getting material to publish and further glorify the life of Ernest Hemingway. He knew he was tapping into a character that would be immediately embraced. This was a fusion of the brash American sportsman and exotic danger.

So, to the story.! The  plot device in the story is illness (gangrene) caused by injury. These force the man of action (writer Harry Street) into reflection – as it turns out, a rather stressful activity. BTW, Hemingway used this plot device many times, in fact, whenever he wanted to add a bit of depth to a character, he got them to start reminiscing about their difficult past. It always ends badly.  Hmmm … that sort of tells you something about the author, n’est ce pas?

Remember – tough guys always have troubled pasts. It is simply part of the formula.

More than many writers, Hemingway sought out these troubles his real life As it turns out,, illness and injury were things that Hemingway knew a thing or two about. Here is a list of his various more serious misfortunes

  • 1918, seriously wounded by mortar fire while serving as an Italian ambulance driver
  • 1928 a skylight falls on his head in his Paris apartment after he yanked on the cord thinking it was a toilet flush
  • 1930 a car accident leads to a broken arm
  • 1933 while on safari in East Africa he contracted amoebic dysentery that led to a prolapsed intestine
  • 1944 suffered a concussion from a London car accident
  • 1944 pneumonia prevented him from covering the Battle of the Bulge
  • 1945 in Cuba, a car accident, he “smashed his knee” and sustained another “deep wound on his forehead”
  • 1946  – 49 – severe headaches, high blood pressure, weight problems, and eventually diabetes—much of which was the result of previous accidents and many years of heavy drinking
  • 1954, while in Africa, Hemingway was almost fatally injured in two successive plane crashes
  • 1954 from a brush fire,  sustained second degree burns on his legs, front torso, lips, left hand and right forearm
  • From the end of the year in 1955 to early 1956, Hemingway was bedridden.  He was told to stop drinking to mitigate liver damage, advice he initially followed but then disregarded
  • 1056 on a trip to the Basque  Country Hemingway became sick again and was treated for “high blood pressure, liver disease, and arteriosclerosis

Wow! This — and especially the very, very heavy drinking — caught up with him. The dude was only 62, when he shot himself. By then he was a physical and mental wreck. He had played the part of adventurer all too well.

But it seems that back in 1952, Hollywood was not buying ALL of the Hemingway persona.  In Hemingway’s version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro,, the main character, Harry, hallucinates at the end, believing that a plane is carrying him off to safety. But no such luck… Saving Harry would be too “sugar coated”. Nope. Harry Street had to go.  And he does. in his cot in the middle of nowhere. Bonk. Dead.

Hollywood producers would have none of that. At the end of the film, Gregory Peck, playing Harry Street,  is out cold, near death,  and a plane  REALLY DOES arrive to save the day.  And not only that,  Harry also falls in love with his rich wife again.  Ta Da! A happy ending!

This is what Daryl Zanuck thought film audiences want ed to see back in 1952. That was apparently ok with Hemingway. He made no huge complaint about the film (later he would make a stink about the 1957 film version of his novel, The Sun Also Rises).

And this is were things get interesting for me. Hemingway thought he was breaking from a “sentimental” tradition. He was telling things more like they really were. he was “authentic”.His style was “new”. While the tough guy character lives on (think Rambo), we do not expect the tough guy to be sophisticated or honest enough to “tell it like it is”. To the contrary, the tough guy image is now more fantasy than reality (as in superheroes). We look elsewhere for authenticity — and heaven forbid, often to female characters!

And of course, this would have made Popa Hemingway rather unhappy.

Peering into the Horse’s Mouth!

Way back in 1958, one of the most colorful films of all time was released. It is called “The Horse’s Mouth”.  The film was possible to make because Alec Guinness wanted it to be done.  He wanted it done so much that he even wrote the script and developed certain scenes.

The result? If you have not treated yourself to it, you should. Here, the director, Ronald Neame shares some background about the making of the film. Enjoy!

Ah! Those European Train Stations!

When Americans go on a European tour as youngsters, they usually end up in trains. I did it myself, traveling with a Europass down to Malaga from London . It was a grand story! I walked around a lot, spent all of my money in cheap restaurants, and went back!

And of course, as cash flowed out of my pockets, I  gawked at the train stations.

Image result for Gare du Nord

I was reminded of my faux adventure last night when I watched Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 film “Julia”.

Zinnemann, you might recall, is the director who brought us one of the best suspense films of all time, “Day of the Jackal”.   He  certainly had a flair for directing, and btw, had quite a time of it in Hollywood

After his exquisite A Man for All Seasons (1966) won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Fred Zinnemann had every reason to feel like the luckiest director in Hollywood. The truth is he would not get to direct his next film for another seven years. His attempt to direct an adaptation of André Malraux’ Man’s Fate for MGM had fallen through, and a court battle with the studio almost pushed him over the edge and into bankruptcy. It seemed like his career had nowhere left to go when, suddenly, straight out of nowhere, an offer from Universal came to direct an adaptation of a spy novel that was about to be a huge best-seller. The book, published in 1971, was Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, and the movie, released in 1973, is a masterpiece—the greatest film of Zinnemann’s career.

There are two things to note about Zinnemann in this context. First, he had a weird thing about trains. He loved using them for dramatic effect. From the above link,

There are trains in nearly all of Zinnemann’s movies. Remember the train filled with young Holocaust survivors in The Search (1948), Frank Miller’s train in High Noon, Omar Shariff’s missed train in Behold A Pale Horse and the several trains which Lillian boards in Julia (1977). The great critic Marilyn Ferdinand has commented on Zinnemann’s “affinity for trains, close-ups, and ability to coax iconic performances to dizzying heights,”

Zinnemann also had a weird thing about the isolated, morally sound hero. Think of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”, one of Zinnemann’s classic films. The hero has to act because everyone else is not quite up to the job of dealing with the scary bad guys. But it has to be done! Good thing Gary Cooper was around!

And so I found myself sipping a Bushmills last night,  watching Jane Fonda play Lillian Hellman in Zinnemann’s 1977 film, Julia. I confess that I am not quite sure what to make of the film. On the plus side,  it seems like a celebration of drinking — as most of the main characters get drunk on  a regular basis. Hemingway got famous by making “drunk people talk”, and there are some good drunk scenes in the film.  There is also a lot of cigarette smoking, mainly by Fonda who btw, seems to be wearing underpants that are 5 sizes too small. How else can one explain her character’s  obsessive, grumpy, nervousness?

About that grumpiness. I didn’t quite get how Fonda/Hellman could be so grumpy while living the life of Reilly in a beachfront house with nothing to do but drink, smoke, and peck away at the typewriter. Meanwhile, her lover, Jason Robards playing Dash Hammet, seems like he very badly needs to reduce the dosage of whatever drugs he was on.  Was Hammet really that boring? After all, the guy wrote The Maltese Falcon! And there is that barf inducing moment when Fonda/Hellman chortles about being famous.  Get my point? If you are looking for inspiring characters, this film doesn’t quite cut it.

Back to the drama! So there is Fonda, riding on a train from Paris to Berlin, and smoking, of course. She has $50k concealed in her hat, that she is supposed to deliver to her childhood friend, Julia, who is waiting in a Berlin cafe so she can pay the bill (ok, she has other reasons why she wants the cash). The dramatic moment – Fonda has to cross the border, and while doing so, avoid raising the suspicions of evil looking border agents. who no doubt wonder where she got the weird hat. This is supposed to justify the seemingly endless scenes of the train —- get this — moving forward on the tracks!

To the point, Julia —  now one legged Julia — waiting in a Berlin cafe for the cash, is obviously the heroine of this film. She is (1) smart, (2) brave, (3) honest, and (4) committed to do the right thing. She is also, apparently, just a tad randy. So of course, she needs to get bumped off, which (spoiler alert) she does near the end of the film.  The good guys don’t win! Well, the film was made during the 1970’s when that sort of thing was in vogue.

After Julia is bumped off,  we are left with a bunch of second rate characters who whine about how hard it is to be genius writers and famous and stay honest about it all. And looming over all of this mental stew, is the author of the story — Lillian Hellman.  We need to take a deep breath here, as this gets a bit gross. According to Hellman, the story about Julia was true. It was all part of her real past. Not fiction. She actually did lose a dear childhood friend to Nazi killers! She actually wore a weird hat with $50k in it and didn’t filch any of the money!

You might wonder, what was the big deal? Why did the story have to be true? Back in 1939, Maugham wrote “A Christmas Holiday”, telling the same sort of story — as fiction. And Maugham did rather well by it!

Well, you had to be there at the time to understand why it was so important. It was the post- Truman Capote “In Cold blood” era. Capote got lots of attention — and made a ton of money —  in 1966, by novelizing a true story about a grizzly murder. Aha! Because it was “true”, it was “better” — that is, more “authentic”. So lots of Capote wannabe’s started boasting that their stuff was also true. Hellman was no dolt. She got into the act, pronto. The Julia story , as part of her “true” memoirs came out in the book “Pentimento” in 1973. Yes, Hellman was cashing in on a literary fad.

Here is the thing — we know by now that Hellman was … shall we say … deeply challenged by the truth.  In other words, this  supposedly true story about courage, etc. never really happened. There was no childhood friend named Julia. There was no hat and no cash and no train. There was just a lot of boozing and whining and smoking. and conniving about how to get rich and famous as an author. Well, ok. There were nazi’s and they did bad stuff to other people. BTW, Stalin and his cronies were doing bad stuff too at the same time, but the real life Hellman seemed not to notice that in her real life visit to the Soviet Union. Odd.

So is there anything of value here? Certainly not morality plays about “truth”.  On the other hand,  the  film is about  the rise of fascism in the 1930’s.  Hellman, supposedly found out that something weird was going on in Europe. Something that Americans didn’t get. Something ugly. But no one wanted to hear it.  And our buddy Fred Zinnemann must have raised an eyebrow when he caught wind of this aspect of the story. Someone stood up against fascism! Bravo! There is something to this!

And  that brings us to our own opportunity! Something ugly IS actually happening now in the real world.  We ARE in the midst of an odd mood shift, where at least some folks are talking trash about scapegoating Muslims, etc. And we have nasty border guards too! Not only that, we have “ICE”, roaming around, kicking folks out of the country. What’s more, hats are in again!  Of course, one can just wire money these days – and US trains are not so exciting as their European counterparts. So we cannot do the prolonged train scene. But we can work around that stuff. Trust me!

Anyone up for — Julia II?

Another Look at Parker’s “An Ideal Husband”

An ideal Husband is a comedy  that was written by Oscar Wilde and brought to the London stage in January,1895. It was a success …  that is, until April 1895, when Wilde was arrested.

In light of this tidbit, there is an ironic line in the play when the female villain responds to the question why the victim of blackmail would have to pay

… Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do. You have to pay now.

Indeed, Very soon, Wilde would be paying for his own so called “sins”.  But the play is a comedy, not a tragedy. Indeed, its a comedy  that ends on a very high note.

Oliver Parker’s adaptation of the play for film captures the rather light hearted touch. At the same time, it tones down the frivolity in favor of a slightly more realistic glimpse at upper class English society. And it through the plot, it embraces an optimistic view of the redemptive value of relationships.

I wish this theme was explored with the charm that you find in this story. Am I missing something?

BTW, when I wrote “slightly more realistic” above, I did not mean to say that the movie intends to be an accurate depiction of Victorian reality. In the end, this is a play about morality, not reality. The frivolity I had in mind was Wilde’s tendency to use dialogue to deliver his own bons mots. Parker tones this down just a bit, which allows the characters to come to life.  I found this to be refreshing.

What is Beyond Contestation?

The word “constestation” is a bit peculiar to us.  It refers to the process of contesting, something that we take for granted as our right. So we do not fret very much over the process except in certain limited formal ways, for example, in legal matters.

I first heard the word “contestation” in a movie called “A Knight’s Tale“.  In that movie, a handsome young peasant gets his friends out of a jam by pretending to be a noble knight.  With his friends, he decides to continue the fraud and masters the skills needed to win knightly tournaments. Over time, he gains fame in his false identity. But of course, he is found out by his evil rival and punished. His friends try to help him in vain, and then comes the magic moment when the Prince of Wales decides to intervene. Here is the scene

“As it is my word, it is beyond contestation”.  The lie is magically converted to truth, and the story moves forward upon a completely different basis.

Donald Trump and his merry gang of White House pranksters vie to claim this same magic power. They claim that they can say what they want about facts and because they are the ones saying it, their version is beyond contestation.

So did millions of illegal immigrants vote illegally and deny Trump his popular vote win? Was the inauguration crowd enormous?  If Trump says it is so, it is apparently beyond contestation. Except, of course, it is not. It cannot be or the republic is doomed.

Is that a bit strong? Consider that we can only govern ourselves if we know the facts upon which we decide what to do. If we defer decision about what is true and what is false to Mr. Trump or to anyone else, we deny ourselves that opportunity. We enslave ourselves. And this is what Trump and his gang want us to do.

it is an easy choice,right? To retain the right to contest what is true or to hand over that right. That choice is being made right now. That is the story that we are living.

Stay tuned on what the people choose.

What’s Wrong with LalaLand?

LaLaLand did very well at the Golden Globes and is a favorite to win Oscars galore. I can sew why. The film is stylish and fits into a long tradition of the “kids trying to make it” story line. It is also, as the Guardian points out, yet another film about how much Hollywood admires itself.

I am ok with that. This is what Hollywood is all about. Hollywood is supposed to be in love with itself. It wouldn’t be Hollywood if it was not.

But I do think that LaLaLand is a bit old hat in one respect. At the end of the day, the love story you see unfold is about love of self – ego. And ego triumphs. This storyline has an old pedigree. We saw it in the wild west, in war movies, in noir films, and on and on. Stars like John Wayne were very good at dressing it up and making it look good. But in fact, when ego triumphs, groups fail. And from this perspective, the stylish story of self-love may be a bit over done.

What do you think`?