Max reprend sa liberté
(Troubles of a Grass Widower)
(Max Linder; 1912)
The beauty of this affable domestic morality play by Max Linder rests entirely with the actor/director's seemingly inexhaustible ability to balance his ineffably graceful screen presence against the stock character of a less than competent husband, consigned to his own dysfunctional devices after the wife runs home to Mother. Linder's comedies were always like this; forever two steps less unhinged, even in their slapstick elements, than the lovely knockabout grotesquerie of Keystone; and with a shade more emphasis on character. Though never as wildly successful in the States as the pantheon comics (Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, Lloyd, etc), each of these eminences nevertheless took away something from Linder's work, without which their work, indeed the soul of American screen comedy itself, would have assumed a very different, possibly less charming form.
Poets are both clean and warm
And most are far above the norm
Whether here or on the roam
Have a poet in every home! #12
Dr. William Carlos Williams
Think of it this way: If our life is full of reconciliations and trade-offs great and small; if it's really marked by the things we settle for, rather than those we aspire to, then no artist in American Cinema made a greater exploration of that principle than Don Siegel; born on this day in 1912.
Like most of this country's great filmmaking voices, Siegel built the house of his art upon the foundation of genre cinema, yet always infusing it with a dimension of drear reality, an everyday torpor and absence of charm that just missed the shores of ugliness and sleaze. The Dramatis personae of Andre de Toth's or Phil Karlson's movies may have dwelled in the harshest corners of human motivation, but Siegel's characters wouldn't travel to the worst in themselves without a good, hard shove by events outside all control. In a Siegel film, it was always just the way things were. This is an approach to storytelling which has virtually disappeared in the face of gleeful postmodernist pursuits (which admittedly are not without their charms), and for me it grows more conspicuous through its absence with every passing season; hence this small tribute to Don Siegel we offer you today.
My thanks to the great Jeff Duncanson of Filmscreed for letting me know what day it was!
Do I look like Charlie Parker to you, pilgrim?
Christ, what a lame way to start a blog, no?
But what could anyone have expected? It was early in the morning, October 24, 2004 and, as usual, I couldn't sleep a wink. To this moment I don't know exactly what it was; perhaps all that talk about the rise of the blogosphere during the 2004 Presidential election, when a raft of intrepid (albeit right wing) bloggers brought down the once-mighty Dan Rather of CBS News over some harebrained, forged documents pertaining to . . .
The point is, I started this blog on an impulse; no more than that. I had no plan, no formula. If I knew anything to a certainty, it was what I didn't want to do; namely take whomever wandered into the thing through some leaden, day-by-day account of life in the Community Television racket, where I make what it pleases me to call my living. Public Affairs television is dreary enough to watch; who on God's green earth wants to read about its creation? Damn skippy, no one does; and, what's more, I knew it from the get-go. I started posting images simply because I had them on my harddrive by the hundreds (now they number in the thousands) and it was easier to do. All very Andy of me; in keeping with the above image.
Oh, I had vague intentions of writing here occasionally (something I was not doing much of then), but only that. My first choice for a title was from an old Frank Zappa composition, Nasal Retentive Calliope Music. But when it came time to typing it in to the Blogger form, I went with something else. As I'm wont to do of a sleepless early morn' I was blasting music through my headphones; Charles Mingus, as it turned out. And one of the pieces on the CD I'd been cranking was Gunslinging Bird. I remembered Mingus's provisional title for the piece and . . . here you have it.
If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats celebrates its two-year anniversary today. Speaking solely for myself, this blog has somewhat sustained me through some rather evil patches, morale-wise. Many times it's been a chronic pain in the neck . . . particularly when I'm behind on regular series such as Hitchcock/Truffaut . . . but more often I've thought of it with a rather odd species of affection. I truly did not believe it would ever last this long; and I daresay without the contributions, generally better than my own, of Stephen Cooke (who joined me in February of 2005), and Richard Gibson (who signed on in June of this year) it would have been gone inside of a year. At the risk of engaging in showbiz blather and false modesty (at worst it is anything but false), I think whatever character of success we've achieved in this production has been as much a consequence of their effort as mine. This is more than to say I could not have done it without them. I should not have.
I thank them both, equally, for that.
Speaking for my co-bloggers . . . and without, I hope, turning hopelessly maudlin on you . . . I want to extend thanks to our regular visitors and comment-providers (with special thanks to our earliest and best contributor in that respect, Rob Carver . . . aka, Vanwall), along with many of our very fine blogging confreres (Dennis Cozzalio, Sheila O'Malley, Andy Horbal, Flickhead, Ivan Shreve, Steve Carlson, David Hudson, Girish Shambu, Glenn Erickson, Jeff Duncanson, Tim Lucas, That Little Round Headed Boy, Andy Rector, John McElwee, Jim Emerson, Sam Johnson, Zach Campbell, Brent McKee, Mark over at Movie Masterworks . . . this is a list which could go on and on; with the unnamed finding no less appreciation than the named) for their support and encouragement, their links, their respect. More is thy due than we can pay, no doubt . . . but we will do our damnedest.
I guess this is the point where I promise great things for the future, right? Vast improvements, new features, more and more and more; all that New Frontier, John F. Kennedy jive?
I'll say this: We're going to keep doing what we're doing. No more, no less. We'll try everything we can think of, certainly. And some of it will no doubt be as lame as that first post; but if we're lucky we might just maintain a consistent level of quality in this corner of the blogosphere and, it is my hope, prove ourselves worthy of another two years of your very welcome attention.
Thank you again,
No. 29 out of 48 in Merrysweets' Telegum TV Stars series
"Born Ahmadnager, India, 1918. Did various odd jobs before joining the army as a Bombadier. When demobbed Spike decided to write for a living and submitted two scripts to the B.B.C. One of the scripts scored a hit and in 1951 The Goon Show came into being. Since then he has written and appeared in I.T.V.'s 'A Show Called Fred' and 'Son of Fred.'"
Call me a skeptic, but Alfred Hitchcock's rationale, the one he would admit to, for directing a textbook Screwball Comedy by Norman Krasna entitled Mr. and Mrs. Smith has always struck me as extremely dubious. To hear him tell it in Part Eleven of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes, it was all the doing of Carole Lombard. She simply asked him to direct a film for her and . . . in what Hitchcock calls "a weak moment" . . . he did it. Just like that.
While Hitchcock had far greater respect for actors than he ever let on (a self-constructed myth discussed in this excerpt), it's hard to imagine an artist of his single-mindedness directing anything at the request of an actor or a producer or . . . anyone; absent some form of contractual obligation. George Cukor? Sure. Hawks? Hmmm. Maybe. Hitchcock?? It doesn't wash.
Barring a barefoot run through RKO Production records, I'm left to surmise his true intent for taking on the project. To me his participation in Mr. and Mrs. Smith had more to do with re-establishing in Hollywood what had always been a crucial part of his filmmaking in Britain, now that it looked as though he was over here for good. During the 20s and 30s, Hitchcock was usually able to weave his creative identity out of the Suspense pieces he'd achieved great success with and take up different narrative forms almost at will. Sometimes the results were utterly disastrous (Waltzes from Vienna, for instance; which was a failure on every level), but more often (the sublime Rich and Strange, or vastly underestimated works such as Juno and the Paycock, The Manxman, The Skin Game, The Farmer's Wife and Easy Virtue) they were anything but. What's more, the commercial Thrillers that heralded the dawn of his world-wide recognition were generally suffused with elements (mostly comic, but not always) that had little to do with that form as audiences knew it, then or now. He was, in short, a much more adroit and varied filmmaker in England . . . . this is not, necessarily, to say that he was a better one (which I don't believe) . . . than he was ever permitted to be in the US.
Why the leash? It was mainly institutional. America's film industry was structured in such a way as to deter, as much as possible, any impulse toward creative risk. It was a counter-impulse rather than a mechanized function. If a certain director . . . even a relatively autonomous director like Cecil B. DeMille, let's say . . . had a firmly established commercial track record with a specific kind of motion picture, then those with an overdeveloped sense of duty to the stockholders saw no point in encouraging said director to try their hand at anything else. Which is not to say that every filmmaker worthy of our attention didn't attempt to wrest themselves from the niches they themselves had created (such struggles are nothing less than the history of American Cinema), its simply that the economics of the industry weren't geared toward versatility then. They aren't now, either.
In the case of Alfred Hitchcock, he tried several times in his Hollywood career to reclaim some measure of this long-ago versatility, but he could only succeed insofar as he buried it within his commercially-proven Suspense model. On those rare occasions when he boldly tried something different (though one might argue that the basic elements, as it were, of his ebullient black-comedy pastorale, 1955's The Trouble With Harry were in his work all along) he was met with the uncomprehending stares of a nation.
After this intriguing opening, marked as it is by a rather odd tirade about stage actors and 'New York' writers who work in the film industry solely for financial inducements, the excerpt moves into a discussion of Joan Fontaine and his 1941 film Suspicion that . . . save for an entertaining (if not altogether believeable) anecdote about that film's momentary fate at the hands of Sol Lesser when he ran RKO Pictures for a half-hour . . . is sheer Snoresville.