Jan 20, 2008

Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

Here's a word I don't use lightly or often enough, but it applies. "Masterpiece."

Tonight TCM showed the restored, 124-minute version of Budd Boetticher's 1951 epic Bullfighter and the Lady, a thrilling piece of gritty melodrama (produced by John Wayne!). When Republic Pictures released the movie, they had cut more than 30 minutes out of it. Towards the end of Boetticher's life, the film was restored to its original full length, thereby realizing the filmmaker's true intentions. I have not seen this movie before in any duration, so cannot account for what the studio removed for the release version. But suffice to say, this two-hour cut is an American masterpiece- one of the most breath-taking commercial pictures from the golden age of the studio system.

While perhaps Boetticher is better remembered today for the string of gritty westerns he made with Randolph Scott (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome), he was a bullfighter before entering the movie business, and got his big break as a technical advisor for Tyrone Power's matador epic Blood and Sand (1941), and spent a decade directing B noirs and thrillers, before getting the opportunity to venture to his surrogate home of Mexico to make this motion picture.

32 year-old Robert Stack plays Johnny Regan, an American upstart in Mexico who takes bullfighting lessons from aging matador Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland) in order to impress a young lady (Joy Page) whose suitor was injured in the ring. Throughout the film, Regan creates much heartache and misunderstanding (unintentionally or not) because of his ignorance of Latin culture in general. He is truly a stranger in a strange land who too often lets his bravado make up for lack of experience.

Boetticher and cinematographer Jack Draper create an ambiance that is by turns docu-realistic and dream-like. The deep focus chiaroscuro photography, with rich tones and long shadows, and the striking composition, turn nearly every shot into a separate work of art. The excellent footage within the ring is properly gritty. With so many scenes of natural light (in the ring, on the streets, in pastures), and where sequences often play without any English translation, one quickly forgets this is a movie, and believes we are really there in the crowds next to the camera.

This story of twentieth century bullfighters perhaps finds its cinematic equivalent in, of all things, sword and sandal epics, where these matadors are gladiators in an arena who play with their lives for sport. The scene with the glowing, sweaty, rippling bodies of the matadors in the steamroom recall similar moments of beefcake eroticism in any big-budget toga movie you can think of. A clever framing device of shooting the matadors in low angles against the sky recalls the striking composition of Sergei Eisenstein (and many outdoor scenes here surpass what he attempted in Que Viva Mexico), and makes the modern-day matador look like a warrior out of mythology.

Perhaps the most telling scene is when they visit an older man whose book on bullfighting remains unfinished because he failed to answer the question of why matadors do what they do. That answer is not revealed explicitly here, but to see Robert Stack's open-faced radiance after being in the ring is to suggest that the appeal of such a dangerous vocation is that one truly feels alive after dancing with death. In a film about male virility, this inference may not be far from the truth. (In fact, the two-shots where Stack and Page exchange longing glances are extremely erotic.)

Budd Boetticher returned to the arena later in his career for the 1972 documentary Arruza about the famed matador, and is likewise hard to find. Having scanned all of the titles in his filmography, I sheepishly confess to having seen only three of his forty features. This is why I love this job-- there is always new work to discover. In an age where more obscure films are being resurrected on DVD each week, the work of Budd Boetticher is a perfect candidate for rediscovery by a new generation. As for Bullfighter and the Lady in specific, this cries for a Criterion release (in its full version of course) with a documentary of this auteur as a bonus. In the meantime, this masterpiece plays again on TCM February 6. Warm up the VCR.

Jan 19, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman

It may not be much of a stretch to say that this is Sidney Lumet's best film in 20 years (after Running on Empty), considering that he has done a string of mediocre films in the meantime, but I mean it as high praise. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a crackerjack movie about a heist that typically goes wrong. Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) Hanson, each up to their elbows in debt, plot to rob their own parents' jewelry store, in a supposedly quick and neat operation where they would make some quick cash, and their parents would get everything back with insurance, anyway.

The second scene in the film shows how the robbery goes horribly wrong, and then several times we continue to flash back to a few days prior to the robbery, and see how things unfold from a different character's point of view. At first, I was concerned about this broken narrative device (the last thing we need is another heist movie suffering from "Quentin Tarantino's Disease", which ripped off The Killing in the first place), but as we revisit certain moments, they have another layer of doom and deceit.

Sidney Lumet directs with his usual sense of mannered economy, delivering a terrific character-driven movie (a la Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon) featuring top-notch performances, in another scenario where lives blur horribly out of control. Ron Fortunato's ashen cinematography, and the simple framing, compliment the bleak, empty worlds of disappointment and broken dreams that all of the characters inhabit, not just the hard-luck brothers. Hoffman and Hawke are outstanding as the siblings whose idiotic plot spirals into tragedy. I was reminded of Hoffman's character in the superb, overlooked Owning Mahoney as an emotionally bankrupt numbers cruncher who thinks he can get away with a preposterous plan. And while I've always liked Ethan Hawke, I have even more respect for him as an actor now. One of the more introspective young stars of the "Gen X" pack in the early 90's, this performance as a sallow-cheeked fortysomething loser is a transformation. Albert Finney is fine as always as the father, yet for most red-blooded males, the true revelation of the movie would be Marisa Tomei, whose nude scenes are already making the rounds on the net. Her role as Gina, married to Andy but also screwing Hank on the side, is heartbreaking. Her bedroom scenes with either brother always have post-coital talk where either sibling promises to take her away from this crummy existence. And because we already know the disastrous outcome of the brothers' get-rich-quick plan, these moments are hardly erotic- even scenes of love are undercut with bitterness and sorrow.

Kelly Masterson's screenplay is an intricately written study of a family unit that was already doomed. I'm not sure I quite buy the ending, despite how credible it would seem with grief-stricken people going out of control, yet it still needed another scene or two to round things out, especially since the story is otherwise so beautifully detailed. At the age of 83, Sidney Lumet has made a terrific comeback film. Like those geriatric directors John Huston, Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood, who would try on different projects while they still have their breath, we can only wonder what he'll do next.

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei

Jan 15, 2008

Christopher's Movie Matinee (1968)

Today I received an e-mail from my friend Mike who was at the Jazz Conference here in town last week, and told me that among the guests was Darius Brubeck- yes, the son of pianist Dave Brubeck. Upon the mention of his name, I was reminded of his earlier "Canadian connection"-- he was one of the musicians who worked on the score for Mort Ransen's nearly forgotten counterculture epic, Christopher's Movie Matinee. The film became stuck in my mind all day, enough to be christened tonight's "film of the day".

My sole viewing of this curiosity piece was at a rare public screening at Cinematheque-- almost exactly ten years ago. The film was introduced by local musician Chris Whiteley, who also worked on the joyful soundtrack. This 1968 documentary is candid look at a handful of long-haired teenagers, following them through their daily existence. While this film is not as dated as other counterculture films of the period, it does however stand as a document of the naivete that in general is the essence of youth, but in specific, these spacey young hippies make observations about the real world that exists outside of their cocoons. One well-fed bespectacled youth, in a friendly argument with an old man on a bus, compares himself with the black population as to how the world looks down upon hippies!

The subjects of this movie in a sense are representative of Canadian cinema of the 60's to the early 1970's: youthful, naive, yet free. Films like Claude Jutra's A Tout Prendre, Don Owen's Nobody Waved Goodbye and Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road pointed their cameras into the streets to tell stories that were at once Canadian yet universal, and yet freely experimented with form. While not as radical as The French New Wave, Canadian films of this time were surely more playful, recalling some of the freewheeling style of the British Kitchen Sink movement. Not yet daunted by self-consciousness or deluded by tax credits to create ersatz Americanized movies, our films of this period were fresh and alive.

While this unscripted picture is interesting most for a look back at the counterculture period (especially those glimpses of the pre-yuppified Yorkville, where the streets are teeming with young people), and seeing how these kids react in whatever situations the camera finds them (I love the one guy going on about how he loves little kids' drawings because they're beautifully abstract), there is another interesting layer... which happened accidentally. This documentary becomes a movie within a movie, as the organic process of creating this film as it happens becomes a self-referential theme, and ends with the realization that the NFB has pulled the plug on the project, leaving the kids to ask the question of what is going to happen to the movie. This fatalistic ending is also emblematic of the flower power movement: something that ended much too quickly before really getting started.

Jan 11, 2008

First Lady of the Late Late Show

In 1954, tall, slender Finnish emigre and struggling actress Maila Nurmi went to a masquerade party dressed in long black hair and gown, and caught the attention of TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr., and quickly got the novel idea to cast this starlet for a show to jazz up the schedule in the midnight hour. Soon, Vampira was born, as the swinging-est beatnik chick from beyond the grave, caked in white makeup, wiggled her 17-inch waist down a hallway of dry ice and cobwebs, introducing poverty row chillers with a trademark blasé delivery and tongue-in-cheek approach... at once campy and kittenish. Although "The Vampira Show" lasted one season (1954-55) and was only shown on one TV station (KABC in Los Angeles), this late-night filler became a cultural icon whose influence left a mark in fantasy movie fandom for half a century, and counting.

In short order, TV stations across the country began having their own horror hosts, and for the next three or four decades (until those rotten informercials killed the insitution of the late show), they would still fill running time in the wee hours of the morning by having some local celebrity in ghoulish make-up introducing and poking fun at the movies. For cinema insomniacs, a host (or hostess) introducing the late night movie offered a surrogate companion in the witching hour. As such this piece of pop culture is much like the drive-in... a beloved piece of movie-going iconography that forged a sense of community... and equally in dire need of revival today.

Vampira's legacy remains intact today, ironically, considering that no known copies of her show exist (only a recently-discovered kinescope of a promo offers to contemporary viewers any hint of the experience). It has been reported that Maila Nurmi was blacklisted, thereby harming her chances of getting substantial roles after her hit show. This is why she begrudgingly accepted an assignment from the great Edward D. Wood Jr. to star as the "ghoul woman" in his infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, shambling around his cardboard graveyard set with arms outstretched. And thanks to the posthumous interest in the career of Mr. Wood, Vampira has a new legion of fans. Any subsequent roles were mere walk-ons: in Albert Zugmsith's daft The Beat Generation, wearing short bleached hair and holding a rat, she was a beatnik poet rambling about square parents, and in Bert I. Gordon's colourful but cardboard fantasy The Magic Sword, she was an old hag. Whether as Vampira or Maila Nurmi, her all-too-brief screen moments stole the show.

Tor Johnson and Vampira in Plan 9 From Outer Space

Maila Nurmi initially patterned the Vampira character after Morticia in Charles Addams' cartoons, and when Vampira the actress had already faded from view, Carolyn Jones modelled herself from the Vampira image for the Morticia role in "The Addams Family." And then of course, in the 1980's, she began a comeback to horror hostess for KHJ-TV. But when she bowed out of the project, the show was reworked into "Elvira Mistress of the Dark", featuring Cassandra Peterson uncannily reviving the Vampira legacy by introducing cheesy movies, albeit with a lot more cleavage and more overacting. After an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Elvira show for copying her image, she faded from the spotlight again, only to be seen as a lively interviewee in countless documentaries of Ed Wood after the release of Tim Burton's mighty biopic. (In fact, she also appeared in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, an unreleased and highly bootlegged adaptation of an Ed Wood screenplay, starring Billy Zane.)

In Passport Video's otherwise dreadful DVD presentation of Plan 9 From Outer Space, there is an interesting interview with Maila Nurmi, discussing the differences in character between Maila Nurmi and Vampira, as though the latter was a real person. In this moment she is separating the personalities of Maila Nurmi and Vampira, which is something that pop culture has seldom achieved. But this eccentric interview nonetheless proves that the character of Vampira has taken on a life of her own.

The life of Maila Nurmi, beatnik Hollywood fringe dweller, friend and (it is said) one-time lover of James Dean, would make for an interesting movie alone with her unusual screen presence, and on-again off-again flirtation with stardom, and we can hope that Kevin Sean Michael's documentaryVampira: The Movie, which makes the rounds this year, does justice to such a bizarre career.

Her passing yesterday at the age of 86 is another closing of the door to our collective pop culture. She was one of the last surviving people who had company with that Grade Z Genius Ed Wood- and while perhaps she would rather be remembered for her legacy on the small screen, this brief screen appearance ensures that her image will endure for generations to come.

Below: view the original promo to "The Vampira Show".