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Sunday, Sep 3, 2006


He was the original Pa Kent, giving an infant from the planet Krypton a home here on earth. He was also the original Mr. Eddie’s father, looking for love while trying to raise his son solo. From his early days as a Columbia contract player, to his heroic service in World War II (where he helped build safe houses in France) Glenn Ford remained wholly original. His death at age 90 on 30, August 2006 was not so much a shock as a reminder of how much his presence in film was missed. Having long since retired from acting (his last onscreen role was in 1991) and in relatively poor health in recent years, Ford’s recognizable fame had more or less faded. But even without a current high profile celebrity, no one could match this amazing man’s considered career.


He was born in Canada, and came to the US when he was eight. Fresh out of high school, he was scouted by Tom Moore, a representative of 20th Century Fox. When the war arrived in the early ‘40s Ford took a break from his occasional bit parts to fight for his adopted country. After marrying fellow star Eleanor Powell in 1943, he returned from service to pick up his career. But it wasn’t until Bette Davis gave him a break in 1946 (with a role in A Stolen Life) that Ford found his footing. That same year, an appearance alongside Rita Hayworth in Gilda (they would go on to make six films together) shot him to superstardom. Thanks to his talent, Ford never again had to look back. He parlayed that success into roles in classic Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and crime thrillers like The Big Heat (1953).


By the mid ‘50s, Ford was viewed as a Hollywood stalwart, a level-headed leading man who came across as decent and determined. But with his 1956 turn as the inner city schoolteacher fighting delinquency in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), the actor became a kind of subtle symbol for the growing problems between the generations…and the races. Thanks to the film’s youth appeal, and the Bill Haley and the Comet’s theme of “Rock Around the Clock”, Ford found himself in even bigger demand. He would go on to make Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Experiment in Terror (1962) and the forgotten gem Rage (1966), among many, many others. He even dabbled in television, starring in the series Cade’s County (1971) and The Family Holvak (1975). But time was slowly catching up with Ford. After playing Superman’s dad in the original 1978 big screen adaptation, and a sinister psychiatrist in the silly slasher film Happy Birthday to Me (1981), he watched his star stock drop. Between ‘81 and ‘91, he only made six more films.


Though his marriage to Powell produced a son (Peter), it didn’t last. Ford never found the right person to share his life with, all three of his marriages after his divorce from Powell being short lived (none more than three years) and, sadly, childless. Ford adored children, and was said to spend most of his retirement playing with his grandkids. Over the years, he appeared in documentaries on Hollywood’s Golden Age, but continued complications with respiratory and heart ailments, as well as a series of strokes, left him frail and faltering. On the occasion of his 90th birthday in May of this year, he was scheduled to attend a 70th anniversary revival of a newly remastered print of Gilda. Regrettably, his ill health prevented his appearance. It would have been nice for this former Tinsel Town icon to have one last shot at the public adoration he so richly deserved. No matter what the current culture thinks, he was never forgettable. That’s because, no matter the role, Ford was always an original. 


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Saturday, Sep 2, 2006


It’s sad that Jerry Lewis has become the punchline to an endless array of farcical French jokes. Buried beneath all the old school mugging and silent slapstick schtick is a truly gifted filmmaker whose inventive ideas behind the camera didn’t always translate to guaranteed hilarity in front of it. Want proof? Take the crazed comic’s 1961 forgotten masterwork, the bachelor boychick as maid to a mass of Misses entitled The Ladies Man. Certainly, the clothesline premise seems too disjointed to be potent. It was only Lewis’s second film as a director and it had, at its center, one of the largest and most expensive sets ever constructed for a feature film. Lewis demanded and got a full size, scale model dollhouse-like home built inside one of Paramount’s soundstages, an amazing monstrosity containing four separate stories, a grand concourse, several open-walled bedrooms, a series of serpentine staircases, and an old-fashioned elevator running up the side. Shown in several severe long shots by Lewis (who is obviously proud of the perspective it gives the film), this art department masterpiece is stunning to behold.


Just like David Fincher’s desire to have an entire Brownstone mock-up to work within for Panic Room, Lewis uses this amazing effigy very effectively. Anyone wondering why he is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker’s dexterity. Lewis’s lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale feel. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value. Naturally, any movie runs the risk of being overshadowed by such a substantive stunt. It would take a larger than life star to survive within the labyrinthine layout. Lewis is, of course, that more than sizeable superstar. Thankfully, he avoids the obvious love affair possibilities to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something sincere and silly - and undeniably Lewis.


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Saturday, Sep 2, 2006

Dada seems like a poor subject for a museum retrospective considering how those artists’ mission seemed to be to undermine the credibility of institutional art and its curators while lampooning the tastes and proclivities of the bourgeois philistines who frequent such palaces of pomposity and complacency as museums. Yet there I was, a philistine at large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, taking it all in. Perhaps the artists would have reveled in this irony. As the paragraph on the wall explained, the Dada artists were pioneers in the art of branding, coining the word Dada to unite the heterogenous art—quasi-cubist painting, embroidery, typographical experiments, pictographs, collages, manifestos, mannequins, readymades, etc.—that went out under its banner. Consequently Dada works seem to be about little more than brand building and self-promotion—it’s not an accident that there are dozens of posters for Dada exhibitions in the Dada exhibition—and the influence this work had on graphic artists, industrial designers and marketers is apparent in how familiar everything in the exhibition looks, how the experimental pieces evoke nostalgia rather than perplexity, how pointedly the provocative Duchamps fail to provoke. Though much is made of the Dadaists devotion to randomness and spontaneity in their methods, these works are outrageous in the calculated way advertisements can be; they use deliberate randomness the way ads now use non sequiturs and absurdity to arrest our attention. So the experience of all this attention-craving Dada in one place—no quiet dignity to these objects—is pretty exhausting, even more disorienting than the usual big, crowded museum show.


The show is organized around the local art enclaves in various cities that the Dada movement was able to manufacture, which gave the appropriate impression that the Dada’s main achievement was to make hip happenings, to create proto-Williamsburgs of self-importance wherever they chose to congregate. I had the feeling the less I knew about Dada, the more I would be able to appreciate the works, which taken in isolation, disburdened of the posturing that surrounded their marketing, could have been quite impressive and moving. Exhibited together, though, one is too conscious of the oppressive art scene, its peculiar anxieties and egoistic concerns. But Dada artists were among the first to discover how to use the emerging mass media as an artistic medium—the collages made of pieces of newspaper and theater tickets and photos cut out of magazines are only a fitting symbol of this.


I liked Schwitters’s collages, though, for an entirely different reason. Though the works seemed to demonstrate the artist’s efforts at mastering the discombobulating proliferation of entertainment and information the era experienced, bringing all the industrially produced pieces of culture together, the works now made by countless, nameless hands, ordering it all and making it coherent and subject to the individual artist’s imprimatur, I appreciated the way they seemed to bring artistic endeavor to a DIY level. They made me wonder why I didn’t try my hand at making some art—all I need is a good matte cutter and some nice frames, and I could maybe put something together. It wouldn’t be as good as Schwitters, obviously, but it would be better than simply consuming art, herding myself through the mass of people. But then the more people who feel like they should be making their own art, the more one has to work to promote oneself, to stand out from the masses, to earn exhibition space and an audience. So the DIY spirit I felt was part and parcel with the revulsion I felt at the branding and attention-grubbing.


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Friday, Sep 1, 2006
“Family film” has become such an ugly term for me lately: most of these Disney-endorsed flicks are barely passable as entertaining morality plays. Instead, they seem to offer up wiseacre kids trying to act like adults while their unfortunate parents dither about incompetently. The saccharine, phony nature of this present-day PG-fare seems to frequently be accompanied by some sort of rock and roll performance set piece in which young and old either share the mic in a duet, or exchange loving glances while playing guitar. It seems that in all of the commotion and emo, they forgot to include something important: the actual FAMILY. Lucky for us, we can be transported back to a time where this genre was actually embraced and celebrated with an offbeat, often unsympathetic take on the “family values” feature: Martin Ritt’s Sounder.

The world this celebrated director conjures up is about as far as you can get from traditional or contemporary, what with the story centering bravely on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan’s, a family of sharecroppers overcoming impossible bad luck during the Great Depression. It’s a tale full of rough edges, no-holds-barred sadness, and a complete lack of pity. The often unsympathetic tone the film takes is a bit shocking at times (no stranger would dare hit a child they didn’t know today, not without severe consequences), but is still dependable and accurate. Sounder preaches its morals and values in a subversive, non-offensive way that is never false or cloying. The story watches eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks, in an introspective film debut) grow into a man while learning the hardest life lessons from his wise, yet misguided parents Rebecca and Nathan Lee (Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield; the first African-American man and woman to be simultaneously nominated for acting Oscars). His parents see the spark in the young man’s mind and they push him into a life of education rather than work. The journey of the young man stays at the center of the film, letting the viewer peek into a world long past, exposing all of its cracks in a believable way.


Sounder deals with some very heavy issues (including the horrifying, inhumane and unfair physical and emotionally cruelties most black people of the time were expected to silently tolerate) without becoming bogged down with cliché-riddled sermonizing. Feeding your hungry family during hard times, working hard labor jobs at a young age, and love in the most dour of circumstances are some of the universal themes Ritt and his great cast touch on. They remain equally relevant to families today, more than thirty years later. At the core, the film is a story about the love and loyalty shared between parents and children and the ties that bond a family together – a closeness that often requires great sacrifice and strength. Rebecca, for example, must learn to let go of her son as he readies to leave the nest. Selfishly, she wonders aloud “who will help me around the house? Who will help me out in the field?” while he looks on with disappointment.


Tyson, as a flawed (but fundamentally wholesome) mother of three, shies away from playing her character for cheap sympathy or dignified suffering: Rebecca is scared for her family’s well-being, and must endure long days of back-breaking work to be the sole provider once her husband is arrested for stealing meat to feed them. She is strong without being overbearing, sensual, and wise without being particularly sophisticated. Her pride is visible when scolding two racist officers who will not allow her to speak with her imprisoned husband (classily tossing off the barb “You got yourself a real low-life job, Mr. Sheriff”; an offense that in is very daring given the potential consequences). Winfield too creates an indelible character: sometimes selfish, other times brutish. As Nathan Lee, he imparts wisdom to his son; but also makes sure to tell him that he is loved: something that is conveyed imaginatively with dialogue and nuance rather than through present-day neuroses or an uninspired musical extravaganza. It’s Sounder‘s strongest selling point.



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Friday, Sep 1, 2006

Via AdPulp comes this stirring elucidation of the punk rock ethos.


Within the punk rock credo of my youth were the seeds of a larger business philosophy. Ten years in a boutique design and branding firm has shown me how valuable the punk rock attitude is to a successful brand plan. The brands that consistently rise to the top have questioned everything that’s been done before. Adding “X” to a razor’s name? Just a lame attempt at buying an audience with weak, non-genuine branding. Inventing a razor for shaving heads? Totally punk rock.


John Lydon or Malcolm Mclaren couldn’t have said it better. As I’ve noted before, “punk” is primarily a branding strategy, a rough equivalent for “edgy” and “youthfully exuberant.” It’s another name for the restless, aimless energy that powers the engine of fashion. It certainly has been emptied of all its rebellious and subversive implications (it has always buttressed the “system” rather than undermine it) and smoothly integrated into the marketing machine as a way to approach a specific demographic. So we can expect to see punk breakfast cereal and punk shampoo and punk SUVs as well as punk razor blades.


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