Jul 2, 2009

Karl Malden (1912 - 2009)

During the Pac Man generation, actor Karl Malden was commonly seen on television commercials for American Express travelers cheques, popping out from behind a pyramid warning us, "Don't leave home without them," right after we've seen some unfortunate tourist having their wallet stolen in a foreign land. Even then, the man was in his 70's, already having left forty years worth of memorable performances, and despite that he wasn't often seen on the big screen in those days, he was still doing strong work for television, notably the highly-regarded TV movie Fatal Vision, for which he won an Emmy. One word I had always associated with Karl Malden was "durability"- he was a very busy star well into post-retirement age, still making quality work.

It was always enjoyable seeing Malden on the big or small screen. Nicknamed "potato nose" for his so-shaped proboscis, Karl Malden had a tremendous screen presence, with his piercing eyes and authoritative voice: whether he was a priest, a detective or an army sergeant, he made you listen. As such, he gave every project, big or small, that same element of professionalism-- his intense upper register delivery let you know he took his work very seriously. This is not to suggest that Karl Malden was overacting- his presence always seemed a little larger than life but his everyday characters were always grounded.

In his early career, Karl Malden was commonly employed by Elia Kazan. He won an Oscar as Mitch in the screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and was also seen as the doomed husband of Baby Doll (1956), a priest in On the Waterfront (1954), and if you look fast, you'll also see him in Kazan's early noir Boomerang (1947). In Marlon Brando's autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, the troublemaking actor had nothing but praise for Karl Malden. After having worked with him in Kazan films, it is no coincidence that Brando picked Malden for his vanity project One Eyed Jacks (1961) in which the great mumbler took over the director's chair after firing Stanley Kubrick, and Malden gave I think one of his finest performances.

Because of his strong screen presence, it is unsurprising he was given roles of authority- from patriarchs to sergeants. This is also why he was a great villain, menacing Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith. Coincidentally, Malden found work with the 60's answer to Brando, as he again co-starred with McQueen in The Cincinatti Kid. In the 1970's, Karl Malden's career began a second life for television, namely the long-running crime series The Streets of San Francisco, with Michael Douglas.

Slipping away from this world peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 97 is rather fitting, as ever-present character players like Karl Malden didn't end their careers on a huge valedictory note, but quietly slipped away into the night, as his roles became fewer and further between while his years advanced. But after seven decades of show business, his tremendous body of work will continue to matter to us for ages to come.

Jul 1, 2009

Jay Scott: MIDNIGHT MATINEES (Oxford University Press; 1985) and GREAT SCOTT (McClelland & Stewart; 1994)

Since this is Canada Day, I figured it only fitting to begin "Film Book Month" with a look back at two publications featuring the work of this nation's finest film writer, the late Jay Scott, who was also recognized internationally for his style, depth and reverence. While he was primarily employed by The Globe and Mail for current movie reviews and related pieces, Scott would also write longer pieces for other publications. In any occasion, one immediately recognizes his flair for lively paragraph-long sentences, peppered with dry wit, and pop-cultural references weaved into the fabric.

Midnight Matinees, a collection of articles and medium-length reviews, is a lovely representation of Jay Scott’s skill in combining his critical and reportage techniques in the same page. The longer pieces which fill the first half of the book read like the creative non-fiction reportage of Tom Wolfe (I suppose it is no coincidence that one piece documents the making of The Right Stuff, based on Wolfe’s novel.) In these sections, he often writes with a tongue-in-cheek, gossipy point of view which are insider’s reports on the fun to be had on The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, or on the geriatric stars of Cocoon. But he also illuminates parts of the globe that many of us have not treaded. For La Balance, there is the light of the multicultural aspect of France. Most interesting is his rather sad account of a film festival in Havana (in which the fact that there is nothing much to report is the report). But two of the best Jay Scott pieces I’ve ever read are included here: “The Sadomasochism Factory” begins with a colourful posthumous character sketch of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose demeanour then parlays into Scott’s analysis of his films. Plus, his piece on the sorry state of the Canadian film industry (written right in the time of the good old tax shelter) is straight-faced, a bit snippy, but right on the money. The choices for the individual film reviews are interesting in that many of them were not box office champions. Films like Cal or Man of Flowers, which do have their followers, are here perhaps because in the early to mid 1980’s, when quality films were at an all-time slump, the discerning viewer looking for something decent to rent may not necessarily know about these comparatively obscure titles. In that regard, this book is an overview of the fare one colloquially expected Jay Scott to report to us abort. In that regard, this book almost becomes a consumer guide by a writer who had no interest in doing consumer reports.

Great Scott!, published one year after the man’s death, is a “Jay’s Greatest Hits”, if you will. It is easy to suggest that the collection of reviews shows a progression of the different waves of cinema in the 15 years of his tenure at the Globe. But, at best, this book shows Scott’s diverse styles, from the surreal and satirical to the cutting, and they reveal his work to be very experimental, once shown back to back. There is nothing wrong with putting in reviews of box-office favourites like Superman or Aliens, but in a “Jay Scott reader”, one rather expects his forte in bringing forth an obscure title. That is why the inclusion of The Inheritors or Annie's Coming Out are treats. But even so, Great Scott! is a highly enjoyable read. Scott’s wild, elliptical, river-like prose goes down like a good winet. Also valuable is Robert Fulford’s introduction, (originally published in Toronto Life), which gives a colourful portrait of Jay Scott, the man.

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