For Your Consideration: The Year Classic Film Made a Comeback

“Awards! All this town does is give awards! Best Fascist Dictator, Adolf Hitler!” – Woody Allen, Annie Hall

If by chance you are unfamiliar with how the Awards season works, here’s a brief outline: Studios tend to release their real Oscar contenders (i.e., films with any sort of non-mainstream artistic merit) until the year’s final Quarter when, badda bing badda boom, theatres find themselves gorged with posters fairly grafittied by four stars and gratuitous praise– all of which prominently feature the words BEST FILM OF THE YEAR in bolded Times New Roman.  Courting the attentions of voting members of the Academy and industry guilds, these films bottleneck around Thanksgiving, just in time for the first in a long slew of awards nominations. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association unofficially kicks off the Oscar race with the Golden Globes, followed in quick succession by the major industry guild awards, The PGA, DGA and SAG, all of which have a heavy influence on the Oscar outcome (the DGA has failed to predict the best director Oscar only 7 times in the past 60 years). The BAFTAs roll around in early February and, by then, the hotly contended Oscar race has been wined and dined until the Academy members’ votes have been more or less… secured.  If this sounds like a well-oiled political machine, that’s because it is. By the time Oscar night rolls around, the odds are so firmly fixed that there are few, if any, surprises.

But.

What does surprise me this year, with Awards season just now kicking into high gear, is that fact that four of the films garnering the most amount of critical accolades are in fact nods to classic film.

I’m talking about, of course, Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.

From Simon Curtis, in his feature film directorial debut, comes My Week With Marilyn, featuring Michelle Williams taking on (arguably) *the* pop culture icon of the 20th century. The story centers on the filming of Laurence Olivier’s tumultuous production The Prince and the Showgirl where a very young man (Eddie Redemayne) grabs a job on the shoot, meets Marilyn Monroe, and ends up spending a week with her at a guest cottage. And yes, it’s based on a true story. Or at least, a memoir. I’m sure I’m not alone in being rather, shall we say, protective when it comes to portrayals of Marilyn since stereotype and sensationalism so often cheapen the woman behind the image. My Week With Marilyn is a flawed film about a flawed woman, and I suppose that’s what makes it work so well.  Williams may not be Marilyn’s doppleganger, per se, but what Williams absolutely commands is the fragility and loneliness that so consumed Marilyn. The film may lack somewhat in plot, but is entirely forgiven by performance. It is also, let’s be honest, total eye candy for classic film lovers. We get to revel in the early golden years of Pinewood Studios, and are treated to appearances by such classic film luminaries as Laurence Olivier (a solid Kenneth Branagh) Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and even Jack Cardiff (Karl Moffat)! Although charming and sentimental, My Week With Marilyn relies on neither.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS ; Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO

Woody Allen’s unapologetically sentimental Midnight in Paris was released earlier this year, but has enjoyed a recent For Your Consideration awards campaign that has put it squarely in Oscar contention. The film, in many ways, mirrors Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo: in Cairo an unhappy housewife sought relief at her local theatre, while Paris tells the whimsical tale of an idealistic Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who, while on holiday with his very ‘L.A.’ fiancee (Rachel McAdams), finds creative freedom and whirlwind love in 1920s Paris. Literally. A mysterious black taxi cab pulls up  in front of his hotel and whisks him away to a hole in time– make that a watering hole in time. A left bank cafe whose regulars are the none other than the artistic superstars of the ‘20s: Ernest Hemingway, Salvidor Dali, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds– and a beautiful young flapper (Marion Cotillard). While Midnight in Paris is not technically a ‘Hollywood’ movie, and lacks the gut-wrenching stomach punch that makes Cairo such a classic, Paris is still the sort of fanciful grown-up fairy tale that hearkens back to a day when studios were still brave enough (and young enough) to take creative risks– it is a film that could only be made by a  a classic film enthusiast like Allen.

Rather like Allen’s cineaste colleague Marty Scorsese…

Asa Butterfield in HUGO; Harold Lloyd in SAFETY LAST

Like Allen, this proud New Yorker has chosen the City of Lights for his family-friendly offering. Hugo is currently being packaged and marketed as a Holiday family film of feel-good fluff.  Talk about false advertising. Sure, Hugo is family friendly, but it is hardly Holiday fluff. Scorsese, a masterful storyteller, has created a  dazzling film that, at its core, is a lesson in film history, a case for film preservation, and an unabashed love letter to the cinema. (As if one could expect anything less from Marty, cineaste supreme and film preservation champion.) Orphaned when his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is killed in a museum fire, Hugo takes to minding the clocks at a grand Beaux Arts train station, ducking the comically villainous policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen) by weaving in and out of secret nooks and crannies. Just as the clocks never stop ticking, neither does Hugo’s sharp mind– nor his light fingers– which deftly scrape the station for scraps of food and scraps of junk from an old man’s joke shop (a fantastic Ben Kingsley). The boy is desperate to repair a broken automaton, which is his last tangible connection with his father, and is convinced that the automaton is holding a secret message. He’s right… kind of. With the help of spunky, wide-eyed adventuress Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who happens to be the crotchety old joke shop owner’s niece, Hugo unlocks much more than he imaged. It is 1931 and young Hugo is a movie lover– movie going being one of his favorite pastimes with his late father– and he introduces them to Isabelle who has been banned from the movies by her uncle. They gasp and laugh in wonder at Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock in Safety Last (a feat Hugo mimics later in the film) and, it soon becomes clear why Isabelle’s uncle is so opposed to them. The man is none other than Georges Méliès, the first great artist of the cinema, and also the first true casualty of the film business. In a wondrous stretch of visual narrative, Scorsese recreates Méliès’ magical early days of invention and inspiration in dazzling 3D that is a tremendous thrill for film fans. Scorsese’s vivid recreation of A Trip to the Moon (1902) itself is worth the price of admission. Méliès, broken and shadowed by oblivion for so many decades, finds a new beginning through Hugo’s large blue eyes, just as Hugo finds a surrogate father figure in Méliès. They, in effect, fix each other. Too sugary sweet? Maybe, but hardly superficial, and like the classic films that so inspired Scorsese, the result is magic. Will kids bite Scorsese’s clever bate, which is so obviously geared at introducing classic films to a new audience? One can only hope…

Jean Deaujardin in THE ARTIST; Fredric March in A STAR IS BORN

And finally, from French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius comes a film not set in Paris, but rather Hollywood 1927 during the onset of sound.  The Artist is a silent film, shot in black and white in 4:3 aspect ratio and worked from a scenario– not a script. Which means The Artist is The Real McCoy. Whimsical, gorgeous, and at times, just plain magical.

Trust me, no one was more skeptical than I going into The Artist. Just who did this Michel Hazanavicius think he was, anyway? What could he possibly know about silent filmmaking. I am happy to say that my misgivings were ill founded. Hazanavicius is completely in control here.

He is highly fluent with the grammar of silent film narrative. Occasionally, perhaps he understands it a little too well– Hazanivicius’ formulaic setup keeping me from being completely immersed in material. (And total  immersion is what silent film is all about– being completely absorbed in the pure magic of shadow and light). A film critic friend of mine shrugged when I mentioned this, replying that “silent melodramas were all pretty formulaic.” I bit my tongue. In fact, I have decided to bite my tongue about all of my nitpicks with The Artist. (i.e., Kinograph Studios not doing a sound test on its stars until 1929 when sound had in fact already taken over.) because this is NOT a historical film, it is a silent melodrama set in Hollywood.

And who cares that George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)’s tragic story is actually A Star is Born 3.0 (although the performance does, I say, give Fredric March some serious competition.) the fact is he nails it. And when we finally do hear Valentin’s voice, in the final seconds of the film, the fact that he has a French accent is a marvelous kick.

What is also exciting, for silent film enthusiasts, is the reaction of the audience. At a time when the theater going experience is becoming more and more insular, the shared experience of a dark theater becoming less and less of a cultural pasttime, it was so wonderfully (I hate the overuse of this word but no other will do) organic to hear nothing but music and laughter for 90 minutes. (And speaking of music, classic film fans will swoon over the fact that the film’s emotional climax relies entirely on Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score from Vertigo!)

And also, vindicating. An art form over 100 years old still has the power to entertain and charm mainstream audiences… hopefully, the critical success of The Artist means that someone will come along with the balls to prove that silent film also has the power to enlighten!

Woody Allen: The Cynical Romantic

The Woody Allen Blogathon Hosted by Cinema-Fanatic

Somewhere in the beginning of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) he says, with classic Allenesque neuroticism, “I don’t wanna be honored– it’s all hype!” Right down to today it still rings true. “It’s hard to imagine competition between books or films or works of art,” he says in Woody Allen on Woody Allen. “Who’s to say which is better? All are so different, each in its own way. [My films] aren’t made for competition, they’re just made for people to enjoy or not.”

Well, we do.

And more importantly, so does the Cinephile maven over at Cinema_Fanatic, who today proudly hosts The Woody Allen Blogathon.

He is the Director/Writer/Actor’s Director/Writer/Actor and perhaps, along with Marty Scorsese, the last of the New Hollywood/Old Hollywood Purists still making films that are rooted, irrevocably, in the sensibilities of classical Hollywood filmmaking. (And can I just say that I dearly hope the topic of Allen’s soundtracks has been beat to a pulp for this Blogathon! They are a classic film fan’s dream come true.)

One could ramble for days on end with Woody (the film titles, Juliet Taylor,  Mia, oy vey…) … so I’ll leave that to my fellow Blogathon bloggers and come quickly to the point of this post:

One of the biggest reasons I love Woody Allen films is because they are so cynically romantic. Not cynical of romance– love is the root of Allen’s work–but these are real world fairy tales. The characters are often lonely, miserable, desperate for validation, and often the movie ends with them precisely in the same way. But the journey from Square One to, well, Square One, brought them, in whatever it’s form, enough love–however fleeting– that they are, ultimately, somehow… OK.

"You gotta have a little faith in people." Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979).

This scene from Manhattan (1979) is, without question one, one of the most famous film endings of all time. It delivers the expectedly sentimental yet unexpected deeply visceral wallop that is right up there with Chaplin’s City Lights finale.  (Allen is a Chaplin fan.) And it rather sums up  nicely exactly why I feel the way I do about the films of Woody Allen. Manhattan isn’t my favorite Allen film–that’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). It’s certainly not his funniest film (nor is it meant to be)– that for me will always be Annie Hall (1977). But I do think that here, in these final few minutes of this highly dysfunctional love story, Allen has come as close to perfection as he has in any of his films.

Backed by a sweeping Gershwin medley that charges off with “Strike Up the Band,” falling into the aching loss of “Not For Me” and finally bursts into the soul-stirring “Rhapsody in Blue” crescendo, it parallels the protagonists journey… the rush of passion, the transience of love, the futility of life, and the reconciliation with yourself that you’re OK with that truth. Maybe even a bit… dare we say it … hopeful.

I’m Into Leather

I watched Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall for what was probably the 101st time the other night and … well … can you blame me for wanting to take a moment to post this truly hysterical moment?

First of all, I’m a big admirer of Allen’s films and although Annie Hall isn’t my personal favorite (sacrilege, I know, but that crown lies with The Purple Rose of Cairo) I do think Hall is Allen’s tour-de-forcce and a real benchmark in romantic comedy. His script is sharp, fast and deeply funny, and his direction is so natural (you can’t get much more natural than two people just sitting and talking) that the more risky, experimental aspects of the film come across flawlessly.

Alvy Singer‘s reflections on his childhood have a touch of Felliniesque surrealism to them, and Allen’s defiantly New York humor is irresistible. My favorite of these sequences comes early in the film as the young Alvy Singer– every bit as neurotic and paranoid as his adult counterpart– takes a moment to wonder how his old schoolmates turned out.

“I run a profitable dress company” …

“I’m President of the Pinkus Plumbing Company” …

“I sell thailis…” …

“I was a heroin addict now I’m a methadone addict”…

and everyone’s favorite (drumroll…):

“I’m into leather.”

Pitch bloody perfect.

I'm Into Leather

I watched Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall for what was probably the 101st time the other night and … well … can you blame me for wanting to take a moment to post this truly hysterical moment?

First of all, I’m a big admirer of Allen’s films and although Annie Hall isn’t my personal favorite (sacrilege, I know, but that crown lies with The Purple Rose of Cairo) I do think Hall is Allen’s tour-de-forcce and a real benchmark in romantic comedy. His script is sharp, fast and deeply funny, and his direction is so natural (you can’t get much more natural than two people just sitting and talking) that the more risky, experimental aspects of the film come across flawlessly.

Alvy Singer‘s reflections on his childhood have a touch of Felliniesque surrealism to them, and Allen’s defiantly New York humor is irresistible. My favorite of these sequences comes early in the film as the young Alvy Singer– every bit as neurotic and paranoid as his adult counterpart– takes a moment to wonder how his old schoolmates turned out.

“I run a profitable dress company” …

“I’m President of the Pinkus Plumbing Company” …

“I sell thailis…” …

“I was a heroin addict now I’m a methadone addict”…

and everyone’s favorite (drumroll…):

“I’m into leather.”

Pitch bloody perfect.

City of Dreadful Joy: Random Ponderings on the Paradoxical Mechanics of a City in Search of Self.

Confession: I love Los Angeles. It’s not my favorite city in the world– that crown rests in the heart of my old home across the Pond– but I’ve pretty much reconciled to the fact that I do love Los Angeles.

Problem is, I hate L.A.

Yes. There is a difference.

For me, Los Angeles is the tangible city:  its sun kissed sloping hillsides and stretching curves of blue coast; its whimsical architecture that blends neoclassicism, deco and Moorish sensibilities with carefree abandon; the farm town framework disguised under a bustling metropolis; those knockabout formative years with the industry that would one day come to consume it ….  I love all of it.

Real Los Angeles - Angel's Fligh

However, a key factor in the definition of a city’s character is the people who live in it. They are the ones who choose what to make of the tangible city, and what not to make of it. And modern Los Angeles has amassed a considerable part of its population that does not seem to be remotely interested in that tangible city– but rather, the image it projects.

A problem, because a city cannot be truly great unless its organic self is allowed to become a part of the flesh of the people who live there. Perhaps this great distinction is what leads many a visitor to Los Angeles to label it  ‘fake’ – the absence of the organic city as an inherit part of its people is perhaps both obvious and inexpressible and therefore described as, simply, a “feeling” one gets.

Fake L.A. - Plastic Fame

Perhaps, however, this is something that has more to do with Father Time than anything else. Los Angeles is, after all, just a toddler. (History Alert: restless readers are hereby forewarned and apologies sincerely offered for any gross factual inaccuracies… the title of this post, after all, is random ponderings…) Sure, Los Angeles has Spanish roots that reach as far back as the 16th Century, but it has only been an incorporated city since 1850. At 160 years old, Los Angeles therefore trails her East Coast counterparts in both experience and maturity by some two hundred years—and by her European counterparts, upwards of a millennium. By way of perspective: when her shores were first spied by Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542 (which he rightly dubbed Baya de los Fumos– that smoke-like morning fog still a natural fixture) , his Spanish home had long been a formidable world presence, and was soon to battle her mortal enemy, the powerful, proud England, in the naval battle of the millennium.

The wilds of Baya de los Fumos was not to be officially recognized as a civilized township for some 300 years.

And even then, from the very beginning, Los Angeles was a North American curiosity. It should not have been a metropolis, this arid chaparral. And yet, America had fought for it. The  Mexican American War claimed California as its own, and with it the progressive reality of transcontinental railroads, the unsavory-but-necessary enterprise of irrigation, and the delicious reward of Oil.

Even so, this outpost of American civilization quite literally had to will itself into being– its purpose and place in the American tapestry very carefully curated by its boosters and backers. Well into the early 20th century, this city without a solid identity was being furiously fought for. The Los Angeles Times power players and the wealthy Maritime institutions fancied it a WASP wet-dream  … a delusion not to materialize (at least, not permanently) thanks to a vibrant, unstoppable ethnic population and a sleepy little farm town hamlet to the west called Hollywood. This pepper tree-lined enclave suddenly became the center of Los Angeles’ foremost export:

Motion Pictures.

Hollywood pre-1920 was a small-town USA community steeped in strict Conservative morals. Winding dirt roads and General Stores and church picnics with sweet lemonade and knitting bees. On the other side of the spectrum was the motion picture industry which had been birthed a million miles away, in the bowels of New York City and New Jersey, by immigrants– many of them Jewish. Los Angeles fought its newly forced upon identity as the entertainment center of the world, and even into the Sound-era, only Conservatives such as Cecil B DeMille were admitted into the city’s established circles.

The rest created their own.

It was from these Garden of Allah dens of devilish delight that the incoming thronging masses from the world over– Iowa to Istanbul– fabricated their own realities in a city of conflicted identity. The respectable Theodosia Goodman from Ohio became the vampiric Theda Bara and circus performer Archie Leach from Bristol became the debonair Cary Grant.

The city’s reputation was now beginning to precede it. Los Angeles was not the sleepy Spanish hamlet of Jacaranda and Pepper Trees; the wide-eyed Chicago of the Pacific with its Downtown sky-climbers; not even the Riviera of the West with its dramatic coastline so very similar to Cannes and Monte Carlo. Los Angeles was now synonymous with one word: showbiz. And Hollywood was its fated patron saint.

There is to this day, a very tangible dichotomy.  Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, and those who simply live here

Novelists from Raymond Chandler to F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway belabored their frustrated romanticism of it.  Aldous Huxley’s observations were rather more acidic. He wrote of it in 1926: “Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy, and conversation is unknown.” And, of course, there’s Woody Allen famous summation of the City: “I cannot live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light.”

Funny as hell. And true too– if you’re judging on appearances.

The dichotomy here is tangible and one can find truth absolutely in both sides. Those who emigrate here desperately, searching for the smoke-and-mirrors dream of a selective reality, conduct a conspicuous manner of ‘living the life plast-astic’ so loud that onlookers can’t help but assume ‘that’s all there is’.

But… it’s not.

You just gotta do a bit of digging.  The real Los Angeles belongs to boarded up crumbling black alleys, old Spanish estates, the foothill wilds and reaching Deco spires. Its a past that time has yet to blacken over completely. It’s still there, living and breathing and waiting to be discovered…

All you gotta do is know where to look.

Through the tireless, passionate efforts of nonprofits like The Los Angeles Conservancy, The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, and their fight to protect and preserve, there is a bright hope that this tangible city will indeed remain just that.

Westwood Village in 1941 (via the Neat Stuff Blog)

The Bendix Sign today, Downtown LA. Copyright James Herman

Pershing Square, Downtown Los Angeles in 1965

The Vine Manor Hotel, at Vine and Yucca St. 1953

Sunbathers at The Hollywood Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)

Downtown's beautiful Eastern Building, today. Copyright A.C. Thamer

La Cienea Blvd at sunset during the 1950s

Towards the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine, 1962

Musso & Frank's Restuarant today, with its legendary bartender, Manny. Copyright Arturo Sotillo.

View of Hollywood Blvd and Hills from the Roosevelt, 1956 (via ElectroSpark)