Day One - A trip back to the classic days of studio system Hollywood, complete with great musicals, amazing adventure yarns, and a couple of post-modern freak outs, just to keep things controversial and lively.
Singing in the Rain
Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
US DVD: 24 Sep 2002
Director: Stanley Donen
Singin’ in the Rain is a film of pure joy—for the performers as well as the viewers. While the stories of Gene Kelly’s autocratic demands as a director and choreographer are legendary, his hard work clearly paid off.
From the relatively green Debbie Reynolds, a 19-year-old with no real dance experience, we get honey-coated angelic singing, faultless dancing, and enough pep and spunk to supply the whole cast of the Mickey Mouse Club. Donald O’Connor, playing, essentially, himself, is allowed to steal the show several times, most memorably with his lengthy and uproarious signature number, “Make ‘Em Laugh”.
Singin’ in the Rain takes as its subject the movie industry, so we get a few winks and nods along the way as actors portray actors acting like conceited idiots. Gene Kelly’s silent-film star character, Don Lockwood, suffers a a crisis of conscience when it is suggested that he might perhaps be a talentless hack; this idea forms the initial conflict between Lockwood and his love interest, the ingenue Kathy Selden, played by Reynolds.
The rest of the plot matters little, but by setting the film at the pivotal dawn of the talking-picture era, Singin’ in the Rain benefits from some of the residual glow that will forever bathe Hollywood’s Golden Age of film. The movie was conceived specifically for this purpose, written as a vehicle for showcasing a number of Nacio Herb Brown songs from the MGM back catalog of the 1930s. This not only gives the music a welcome weight and authenticity, it also makes for a smashing excuse to see what those spectacular Busby Berkeley-style production numbers would have looked like in Technicolor.
One might think that a movie written around a disparate clutch of 25-year-old songs might not be a pleasure to watch, but much the opposite is true. Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen wring plenty out of every scene, such as in the “Fit as a Fiddle” number, when Kelly manages to condense the entire history of how burlesque became the Ziegfeld Follies in about a minute and 30 seconds.
Most of all, Singin’ in the Rain showcases the apogee of a certain school of thought about American modern dance that Kelly personifies. He gives every ounce of himself to his performance and demands the same from everyone else in the cast. In doing so, Singin’ in the Rain shows us a style of dance that tells jokes, sheds tears, writes entire wordless narratives, and expresses the subtlest of emotions, from pathos to quiet joy. Though the plot may be predictable and the film may look old-fashioned, it is never bland or blase. Rather, it is a delight that well deserves its high ranking on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films. Emily Popek
Rebel Without a Cause
James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen
US DVD: 31 May 2005
Director: Nicholas Ray
The sad reality is that no matter how hard most of us try in this life, our efforts leave us looking more like Sal Mineo than James Dean. We try to get the girl (or guy) and fall short. We go too far. We misread situations. We are alone. If James Dean’s short life taught us anything, it is that being cool resided in being real. Rebel without a Cause introduced most of the country to a world full of James Deans and Sal Mineos; a world where the nuclear family had been exposed as farce and misfits were more common than not. At a time when the greatest ideological war we had experienced as a nation was under way, Rebel Without a Cause tells us that our nation’s youth weren’t exactly clear on what that ideology was. Thirty years after its release, it had the same impact on me.
In the winter of 1990, I spent my first holiday ostensibly alone. I had grown up in a traditional family with two brothers and a twin sister. My parents, though separated since I was 11, maintained a close (if not bizarre) relationship. We spent every holiday together.
I was over family. A lot of the illusions about the nuclear family were shattered two springs before when, as a recent high school graduate, I had become a father. Since that time life had been a proverbial roller coaster. I was juggling my innate lack of responsibility with college and being a parent. My ability to lead a family was more bluster than ability. The last thing that I needed was to load into an airport shuttle for a holiday in Mexico with my mom. So I elected to break from tradition and stay home. On December 24th I sat down and, for the first time, watched Rebel Without a Cause. Here I sit three thousand miles and seventeen years later and it would still be my first choice if I had only one DVD to watch for the rest of my life. It was confusing. All the hype about James Dean had led me in my youth to think of him almost as caricature –- a “Fonzie” for the 1950s.
Dean was none of that. He was all raw emotion, exploding in the opening scene while gripping his head and screaming “you’re tearing me apart.” Nothing about him was calm or collected. Sure, he was angry but, perhaps more than that, he was vulnerable. His was not so much a rejection of family, but rather a mirror held up to the tradition of family and an opportunity to draw your own conclusions. He was the first film hero who specialized in tolerance. Forty years later the nation still grapples over issues of sexuality. Jim never seemed to care who Plato loved. His emotive exterior extended to his love interest as well. There was none of the stilted and repressed awkwardness that was so visible in his parent’s relationship. His lesson? That family is fluid. That real men love.
It was a lot to take in for a twenty-year-old father. So much of what I saw was opposite of what “rebel” stood for. Iran had ordered the death of a popular British author because of a fictional story. We were at war over a small strip of land in Kuwait. China had just steamrolled a bunch of kids for asking for a bit more freedom. Everywhere I turned there were overt examples of testosterone run amuck. James Dean offered another option. It was not that he didn’t have the same challenges. In his life, he had the Cold War. And yet, he withstood the pressure and chose love. His adolescence was far from unchallenging, but in the end Jim got the girl. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
The copy of Rebel Without a Cause that I own now is far more comprehensive. Warner Brothers released a two-disc expanded collection in 2005. A beautifully enhanced picture and two hours of extras that take you inside the making of Rebel and into some of the mysterious questions about its characters, as well as their tragic deaths (car accident, stabbing, and drowning for the three young stars).
I won’t lie. The Christmas Day that followed my viewing was the saddest Christmas ever. I missed the real relationships with my family. I was embarrassed about how transparent my phoniness must have been. I missed what Jim truly missed. But I learned a lot too. And it serves me well to this day, to turn on Rebel Without a Cause and remember that life is about living not bravado. Life is about a real relationship with my daughter, not the appearance of one. Joseph Carver
Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes
US DVD: 1996
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Scottie Furguson (James Stewart), a retired detective with a fear of heights, is summoned by old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) for an urgent matter. Elster’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), has been acting strangely, wandering around San Francisco in a fugue state, as if haunted by, or pursuing, a ghost. Reluctant to return to his abandoned profession, and haunted himself by the death of a policeman who died trying to save him, Scottie balks at committing to the job. But when he first lays eyes on the woman he might investigate, the decision is made—but not by him, not consciously. Once Scottie sees the beautiful Madeleine, investigative curiosity and erotic desire pull him in. He is on the case. And Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece about desire and its relationship to the cinematic viewer—herself a reluctant detective—begins.
Vertigo is my indispensable DVD, the film I need with me for my hypothetical life stranded on a deserted island, because no matter how many times I see it, I am seduced anew by it, and cinema itself. With amazing performances by Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes, Vertigo is a dark tale about obsessive love and the power, even the appeal, of self-delusion. But we don’t just watch Scottie falling in love. Hitchcock makes sure, we, too, fall in love with the film by ravishing us with visual and aural beauty. When I think of the film, I think of Madeleine’s emerald-colored dress when Scottie sees her for the first time, her gray suit against the red-orange Golden Gate Bridge, Scottie’s colorful animated dream sequence, Bernard Hermann’s eerie score. Vertigo lays it on thick.
And then there’s its narrative. Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part love story, part postmodern gloss on movie-making and movie-going (Gavin Elster constructs a drama with his actress Judy/Madeleine who will be watched by Scottie while the whole thing is watched by us), Vertigo is like a kaleidoscope. One can look at it and see something different every time.
It is also an intelligent film. Hitchcock famously thought out each scene in his films meticulously, and Vertigo is no exception. As we’re absorbed by the characters and story, Vertigo’s themes are reinforced formally in its visuals and score. Door frames, mirrors, picture frames, paintings and Madeleine’s museum visits quietly hint that all is not what it seems -– reality is a construction. The film’s famous “vertigo trick shot” imagines that vertigo is a simultaneous moving toward something while moving away from it—a visual paradox which echoes Scottie’s dilemma: the closer he tries to get to Madeleine, the further away he is because she is not who he thinks she is. Hermann’s score highlights the increasing anxiety, and even madness, of Scottie’s obsession. One can enjoy Vertigo as entertainment, or deconstruct it from a feminist or psychoanalytic perspective. It is the rare Hollywood film whose entertainment and theoretical values are equivalent.
But Vertigo is my indispensable DVD because all of these aesthetic qualities contribute to an effect I’ve experienced from no other film: Vertigo most closely approximates the childhood delight in hearing a story over and over again—repetition does not dull its pleasures. Watching Vertigo is the adult version of asking to be thrown up into the air, or spun around until you are dizzy, fearing you may not be caught but enjoying it anyway. In fact, it’s so easy to fall for the film’s charms (and falling, remember, is a major theme), that to be tricked by it, to fall down the rabbit hole of its vertiginous story—never gets old. Barbara Herman
Lawrence of Arabia
Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy
US DVD: 9 Sep 2003
Director: David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia was released in Canada on January 23, 1963, about a month after its December pre-Christmas release in the both the UK and the US in 1962. I find this little fact irksome. My memory is of seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time at the Odeon Theater, a huge big-screened movie theater that had originally been built as a venue for vaudeville acts in the ‘20s, and even then still had small private boxes on each side holding about six seats.
The size of the screen is important. The opening shot was of a moving indistinct black spot in the distance; in the foreground were the shimmering, rippling waves of desert heat. My memory tells me I walked to the Odeon, like I always did, but it was a bland rainy Saturday afternoon in March, and that the spring weather explained why perhaps I was so overwhelmed by the sudden heat and vastness of the desert on the wide screen. It is the cinematography, in part, that makes Lawrence of Arabia such a stunning film.
The immense arid landscape in the film is a character as much as the historically torn and conflicted T.E. Lawrence, played by a young and equally paradoxical Peter O’Toole. I was later to learn—as my adolescent fascination with the Arabian Desert, O’Toole, and Lawrence grew—that O’Toole actually resembled Lawrence in physique and that he shared the same intense—some say crazed—blue eyes and facial features.
The vast desert space, mountains empty and sparse in the distance, the barren sand, and its harsh and unforgiving nature struck me as a grand romantic place. I liked how barren the desert seemed to be, how remote it looked, and I liked the idea of exploring a place few had ventured to visit or see. After witnessing the film as a young boy, my mind was indelibly stamped with the idea of the desert as a place remote from civilization and rich in possibility for adventure and beauty. The tawny-colored sand dunes; the riding of a camel in such an inhospitable place was heroic and magical. The desert war against the cruel Turks was bloody, noble, and at times merciless. The line screamed by Lawrence—“No prisoners!”—as they were about to attack a ragged, hopeless column of retreating Turks as revenge for the senseless slaughter of Arab civilians was introduced, by me, into our football scrimmages many years later.
I was also impressed by Lawrence’s passionate and yet restrained character. He refused to wear the traditional military dress of a British officer (in the film an officer remarks that Lawrence ‘had gone native’) among the Arabs and Bedouins he organized to fight the Ottomans; he both loved and hated the thrill of war; he was tough as any desert Arab fighter and polite as any courtier to General Allenby, played by the classic British actor Jack Hawkins. In the end, Lawrence was an outsider to both cultures and was unable to fit in or work with either the British or the Arabs.
The nobility of his purpose, his ability to suffer, and to lead the various sly Arab tribes in revolt, and finally the inexplicable demons he was trying to exorcise, made him a complicated and interesting hero when compared to, say, the one dimensional John Wayne’s frontier champions of the day. Lawrence’s clashes with authority and class, his personality and noble purpose, stayed with me and became private reverence points for my own cultural clashes of the ‘60s and sometimes conflicted confusion of growing up Italian in a predominantly Anglo-Canadian culture. It is a film that reminds me over and over about my slow movement towards adulthood and, at a running time of almost four hours, almost always will reveal some new detail you once knew so well. The film, thus, is like coffee with an old childhood friend. Carmelo Militano
Lawrence of Arabia
Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy
US DVD: 9 Sep 2003
Director: David Lean
In times like these, when most of films are empty of significance—just an excuse for selling popcorn, an eternal feedback of the same arguments exposed over and over, a crowded house of empty characters—it’s still refreshing, and even subverting, to watch David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. Not only because of its improbability, due to what anyone can imagine as an extremely complicated production in real desert locations, but of the greatness of the adaptation. The epic times of an Englishman in the Middle East during the First World War, his great contribution to the union of the different Bedouin tribes that were scattered around the Arab territories, and how he helped them to fight the much more developed Turkish Army, remain classic.
Regardless of how faithful to real life (I still have yet to read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiographical book by Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence, upon which the film is mainly based) the depiction of the characters in the movie is, there’s a lot of valuable lessons to learn from it: the great faith one has to have in oneself; the stubbornness to pursue greatness; a sense of meaning in your own life; the noble bravery of defending what’s right; the importance of culture, of dialogue, of education; and above all, the capacity of accepting suffering for the sake of a greater good.
These are all inspiring ideals that made a deep impression on me when I watched this beautiful film for the very first time. I was very young, maybe only 15, was still at school in Spain, and Lawrence of Arabia was one of the films chosen by the English teacher as part of the materials that would help us improve our knowledge of the language. The impression was so deep that not only the English language, but T. E. Lawrence’s honorable ideals (or maybe they are/were actually Lean’s?) have since stayed in my mind. I notice it whenever I re-watch the film. So, whenever I feel a little lost in one way or another, or simply not inspired, I just come back to this movie—my own private Koran—with the certainty that it will always give me back the truths in which I most believe—that “nothing is written”, that the trick to stand pain is not to avoid it, but “not minding that it hurts”, and that you can get whatever you want in life if you truly fight for it. This may all sound very cheesy written down, but wait till you listen to it coming from the mouth of Peter O’Toole, seconds before he rides his camel against an army of Turks and thereby conquers the beautiful city of Aqaba.
But Lawrence of Arabia is much more than that. As we’re shown on the screen, as the camera rolls, we discover how all those aforementioned admirable ideals can also trigger some other not-so-great emotions, bringing the dark side of the character up, and giving proof of how thin the line between greatness and megalomania, between extraordinary intelligence and madness, really is. But then, who’s free of contradictions? Not me, that’s for sure. The accurate portrait of such a complex character, painted with exquisite, truly cinematic tools of expression, not with just lines of dialogue, turns the movie into a total study of the human soul.
Besides all that, Lawrence of Arabia is also, from the usual point of view of any of the thousands of film studies that have been written about it, an incredible technical feat, one that we will hardly see accomplished again in the future for as long as movies keep being filmed. The way the desert it’s photographed, the enormity of the enterprise, the masterwork of photography, editing, acting, the great piece of music, etc., also makes for an extraordinary tale of adventure outside of the screen. No wonder the movie won seven Oscars in 1962, including Best Picture, Photography, Editing and Direction. Unfortunately, not the ones for Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Peter O’Toole), or Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif).
That’s all that this movie is for me. And I have a feeling that it will always stand on top of my list. Therefore, I could well live on an isolated island with just this one DVD, a very much appreciated Special Edition set that, by the way, has been around for about 10 years now. And amongst all its interesting extras, it includes Steven Spielberg’s emotional confession about how much he has learned from Lean, naming Lawrence of Arabia his all-time favorite movie and the reason why he decided to become a director. The DVD is based in the restored and enlarged (as David Lean originally planned it to be) 216-minute-version of this universal classic that should be taught at every Psychology School in the world.
PS: It seems that the movie has just been transferred by Sony to the High Definition format, and that they may release it later this year. I couldn’t think of a better reason for wanting to finally get me a Blu-ray player. Pablo Amor