Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Busby Berkley - An Evaluative Overview

Here we go then. Busby Berkeley. But before we really get going - I rather tiptoed around evaluating Berkeley's career, the grand overview - so let's start there. He is, I'd say, an "auteur", even if he wasn't a director for his whole career. He was certainly more significant as a choreographer than as a director, but that hardly seems to undermine my claims that he was an auteur - even in fairly narrow cinematic terms. You can see some hints of his choreography in his directing - the way the camera moves, the way people move, the way things sometimes form those little patterns he loved - certainly, the way music and the story are combined. But his greatness is as a choreographer. What's more, as a choreographer, he was intensely cinematic - his dances are aimed at the cameras, and the best of them work much more as short films than as dance routines in a film. The 4 Warner Brothers films I've seen (which I'll be analyzing in some depth in the rest of this series) take this the farthest - they may set their musical numbers on stage, but they explode the stage - the spaces are impossible, the camera goes into the space, and shoots from all kinds of angles - the dances are staged for the camera, using the angles and editing for their effects, and so on. And because of this, I think it is fair to compare him to directors, more than to other choreographers...

Now then: a quick overview of the films of his I have seen. Some more than once - most not though.

Whoopie - 1930 Eddie Cantor film - he runs off to a dude ranch with a girl. He compares operations. He sings and dances and makes waffles. 2 strip technicolor! I saw this many years ago, and can't remember the Berkeley numbers all that well - I remember Eddie, at his swishiest.

Palmy Days - Eddie Cantor vehicle from 1931, in which he gets set up as an efficiency expert at a bakery through the machinations of a phony psychic. The Goldwyn Girls bare most of it, and what they don't bare they flaunt. 2 fine Berkeley pieces - one with the girls in a gym (shot in a freezer from the looks of the girls - as Guy Maddin might say, the boner quotient is very high), the other Cantor's "My Baby Said Yes, Yes" number, which adds dancing girls and trains and extravagent camera angles before it is through. This is a delightfully silly film.

Roman Scandals - another Eddie Cantor vehicle. In this one he dreams he's in ancient Rome, where he is sold into slavery, discovers a magic smoke that makes you laugh (oy), does a blackface routine in a bathhouse (double oy), and exposes corruption in the dream and real life. Contains great comic chariot chase, but the rest is pretty flat; even the Berkeley numbers are dull, even with some barely concealed nudity.

42nd Street - the most famous Berkeley musical, and a masterpiece - backstage comedy and melodrama, with a good deal of fairly technical backstage stuff, not to mention political metaphor (putting on a show as the New Deal!). Bebe Daniels breaks her ankle, Ruby Keeler is pointed to the stage - then Berkeley takes over - his dances exploding the illusion of the stage, leaving it far behind. A good deal more to come on this humble blog about these films.

Golddiggers of 1933 - Ned Sparks would put on a show, if he only had the money. Dick Powell writes songs and checks, and then saves the day on stage when the regular juvenile succumbs to old age. But wait! Dick's from Boston! so Warren William as his brother and Guy Kibbee as the family lawyer come to save the family name - but they weren't counting on Joan Blondell! this is fine fast and furious Warner brothers comedy, with Berkeley's bits tacked on more haphazardly than usual - but they are perfectly magnificent bits.

Footlight Parade - the stage is dead! replaced by Busby Berkeley musicals! But Jimmy Cagney finds a niche, staging preludes to movies - he has to bang out a dozen a week, and he's going mad - somehow that's not enough, he has to bang out 3 in 3 days, and play all three in one night. Does he do it? "Honeymoon Hotel", "By A Waterfall" and "Shanghai Lil" follow - by this time, Berkeley wasn't making the least pretense at keeping his production numbers on stage, even though they are incorporated into the story as stage productions. These numbers are made for the cameras, made in the cameras, with multiple sets and editing effects and the works.

Gold Diggers of 1935 - first film directed by Berkeley - set at a hotel, where everyone is trying to skim from everyone else. A rich miser arrives with a useless son and a beautiful daughter who waste little time hooking up with a pair hotel employees (who cheerfully drop each other for the chance to marry money) - Adolph Menjou as a Russian producer. Then the music starts - dancing pianos, and the spectacular city symphony, "Lullaby of Broadway".

Babes in Arms - Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland are the children of vaudevillians, whose parents have hit hard times, thanks to Hollywood Musicals. They decide to put on a show - unfortunately, this is at MGM, so the production numbers are resolutely physically plausible, the camera seldom ventures above the top of the actor's heads (and they're all frigging kids!), except for one scene of the kids marching through a town singing and starting fires.... One thing worth noting - in both this and the next film, even though everyone's well being depends on the kids putting on a show - they never seem to actually do it. But they get rescued by a broadway impresario ex machina anyway.

Babes on Broadway - second Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film Berkeley made for MGM. Has some moments of Busby Berkely in it, but not enough. Has some first rate singing and dancing in it, though more conventional than in BB's WB days. This film is prettygood, though - and the leads were in fact damned good at what they did - there's a reason those two got to be such stars, and for once it has to do with their actual abilities.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Busby Berkeley Part 1

The Harvard Film Archive recently ran a Busby Berkeley retrospective, and I managed to catch a good part of it. It's very inspiring. Those are some inspiring films. I saw, of their series: Forty-Second Street; Golddiggers of 1933; Footlight Parade (Warner Brothers' trio of 1933 musicals, all with huge production numbers by Berkeley); Golddiggers of 1935 (a similar film, directed by Berkeley); Palmy Days and Roman Scandals (a pair of Eddie Cantor musical comedies); and Babes in Arms and Babes on Broadway, with Berkeley directing Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland for MGM. I missed a couple - Dames particularly - that I wish I could have seen - but I am human, and I need my sleep, once in a while*.

The Warners films, especially the '33 films, were the high point of the series. That's not surprising - they would be the highlights of most series'. They have many virtues, almost too many to count. The musical numbers, of course - but even without them, they are funny and sharp, cynical in that Warner Brothers way - they feature great casts - Golddiggers of 33 has Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, Warren William (whose presence alone makes most films great) and Guy Kibbee - along with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, and all the Warners' character actors (Ned Sparks and the like)... Forty-Second Street has Warner Baxter; Footlight Parade has Jimmy Cagney, hoofing and crooning, as well as putting on a show... it's great stuff! Seeing the films all together like that has some odd effects - like - I began to really get Dick Powell. He takes his lumps - not as bad as poor Ruby Keeler (the Boston Phoenix called her a "roped steer"), but he gets them... But he's not half bad. I didn't quite notice it until I saw hism in 4 films in a row, but he is quite deliberately self-deflating. He's a target because he makes himself a target - he seems to be quite aware that he is playing the charming crooner as a bit of a clown. He is willing to look ridiculous - his love scene with Frank McHugh in Footlight Parade comes to mind. It is interesting that Blessed Event was his first film - it looks like a parody of his persona, but it came before the persona did. There is plenty of parody in the persona itself. The fact is, he is very funny, and I suspect that he only seemed to not be in on the joke - not being in on the joke is the joke...

But good as the rest of the films are, it's the Berkeley numbers that lift them into the stratosphere. You need some kind of hyperbole to discuss the dances, especially in the Warners' films - they are so disruptive, so extreme, they explode off the stage - pretty close to literally. That is, in fact, the gist of this post - or rather - series of posts. How Berkeley's numbers relate to the films they are in - how they relate to other musicals - how they relate to the stage and screen. I know much ink has been spilled on this subject before - but I'm still going to try to work it out. This post, in fact, is something of a warning of things to come: I am going to offer my thoughts on Berkeley's production numbers here in subsequent posts; these may get excessive, but that is life. I can't make too many claims for this - I feel guilty in that I have seen most of these films just once (a few of them more than that) - to do this well, I should have them on hand, to pore over - at least, I should see them a couple times and try to memorize them. But that's the advantage of a blog - you can wing it a bit more....

So that's what's coming. Something like a draft of a longish essay on the musical, especially, the structure of the musical - with Berkeley's work (especially in the Warner Brothers films) used to illustrate those ideas, and examined for the ways it is different from most musicals. There may even be some theory involved - I have reread Jane Feuer and Mark Roth for this, and if I find other commentaries in the next few days, may work those in too. The best thing about this series of posts is that you shoulnd't have to wait the usual three weeks between substantive posts here - a lot of this stuff is close, and just needs some editing and organizing. I should be able to add something every day or two. I'm not promising the world - just - this stuff fascinates me, and I find there are usually people around who share my interests. So here we go!

* The real problem, the reason I missed this film, is extremely deflating. I took chicken out of the freezer over the weekend, and had to take a night to cook it - it was either Dames or the Eddie Cantors, and since I'd seen, and loved, Whoopie! back in the day, I opted for the Eddie Cantor. I wasn't disappointed, though I wish I had seen Dames as well. I should have been thinking ahead before I started defrosting stuff.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Late Start to Long Weekend

Another Friday - come and gone! However, a double feature - Babes in Arms and Babes on Broadway - kept me out late, so... Here then, late but - here it is - the one thing on this sorry blog you can count on: the Friday Random Ten!

1 Source Tags and Codes - ...And You WIll Know us by the trail of our Dead
2 Non, je ne regrette rien - Edith Piaf
3 Shimmy - System of a Down
4 Little Jonny Stinkypants - Dr. Nerve
5 Eat Y'self Fitter - The Fall
6 Honeymoon Blues - Robert Johnson
7 Ex Lion Tamer - Wire
8 Tears of Rage - The Band
9 Skhandraviza - The Ruins
10All there is - Rites of Spring

Friday, May 20, 2005

Random Title Here

It's Friday, so you get your weekly post of random i-pod stuff. Lots of skronk on the guitar front this week, Sonic Youth and Melt Banana and if I took the next bunch of songs that came up, more Sonic Youth, some Erase Errata.... noise noise noise! Meanwhile, Madvillain comes up a hell of a lot, on Fridays anyway, for just having one record in there...

1. Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell - Stooges
2. Tapir's Flown Away (live) - Melt Banana
3. A shy dog - Yo La Tengo
4. We're Going Wrong - Cream
5. Satisfaction - Rolling Stones
6. What people are Made of - Modest Mouse
7. America's Most Blunted - Madvillain
8. She Belongs to Me - Bob Dylan
9. Stella Was a Diver And she Was Always Down - Interpol
10. New Hampshire - Sonic Youth

A Reminder

I have let this go unremarked here - The Dowling Street Memo - that's the one that discussed the invasion of Iraq back in July 2002. The one producing this much reproduced paragraph:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

This is old news - Slacktivist had a post up about it today, reminding me... It's upside down world, maybe, to read all the controversy about Newsweek, the hand-wringing about the deaths it caused - and almost nothing about the other story. Where the people who were responsible for the war - whose actions caused pain and suffering, are shown to have been lying.

Bah! enough!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Friday Random 10 Post

Another work week in the books, another random ten songs post...

1 John Riley - the Byrds
2 If I were a carpenter - Bobby Darin
3 I fought Piranhas - White Stripes
4 Bistro - Madvillain
5 Catch the Wind - Donovan
6 Laughing - Pere Ubu
7 Zajyu - The Ruins
8 Tension - Minutemen
9 The Circle - The Wipers
10 Novocaine for the Soul - Eels

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Wednesday

So far so good. Or not so good. Woke up when the alarm went off - got out of bed - then discovered that, somewhere between the alarm going off and walking to the kitchen, there had been a power outage. No coffee! No internet! I decided to leave the fridge shut, so didn't make lunch. At least the hot water worked...

So here I am at Starbucks, about to head off to work... Listening to Starbucks radio, or whatever it is - they're basically looping Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen (the new one, I think, which sounds almost as bad as the last one), and some female singer I don't recognize. Not good. Nope.

Otherwise, I guess there's not much more to say. Thank god for wireless. Get my news, blogs and sports fix in the AM before I go into the office - ohh sure, I could do that stuff from work, pretending it's "research" or some such nonsense... But the point is to get the brain working - and you ca't do that at work.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Staying Dry At the Cinema

Nice old fashioned spring nor'easter outside, most of the day - so I spent as much of it as I could indoors, seeing films. Two in the afternoon - a third at night.

[Please forgive some of the sins of this post, and please do not be surprised if it continues to change over the next couple days. I hope to polish it a bit, but want it online while I do. So expect further editing.]

1) Cowards Bend at the kneee - Guy Maddin; almost silent, shot like a silent film, in 10 chapters, originally made to be shown in 10 peep shows. A frenetic tale of hockey, surgery, murder and vengeance, ghosts, sexual restlessness ("the joy joy joy of meeting someone new!"), and the cowardice of men unwilling to deal with the troubles of marriage and family. Vaseline, subtitles, film loops, and frustration abound. It's a delight, let's not deny it, a convincing dream narrative.... Shown along with three shorts - Sissy Boy Slap Party, Sombra Dolorosa and A Trip to the Orphanage.

2) Bad Guy: an older film by Kim Ki-duk , director of Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter... and Spring and the new 3-Iron. Starts with a creepy looking gent flirting - sort of - with a college girl. She and her boyfriend say mean things about him, he kisses her, she humiliates him - so he frames her, and before long she's been forced into prostitution. You may think it is a spoiler to add that he is in love with her and she eventually sort of falls in love with him - if you think that is a spoiler, you need to see more movies. I will say no more here - at the bottom of the post, you can find much in the way of spoilage, if you're so inclined.

3) The Man Who Left His Will on Film: 1970 film by Nagisa Oshima - story concerns 2 students, Motoki and Yasuko, who look for information about a (possible) third student who left his will on film before he jumped off a building. These 2 (or 3) are part of a group of students trying to make political films during student demonstrations - though the rest of the students seem far more interested in arguing, accusing one another of apostasy and wrong thinking and moral, political and aesthetic bankruptcy. Motoki and Yasuko watch the testament film, argue about it while having sex in front of a projection of it, and finally end up trying to film an exact replica of it - or rather Motoki does, Yasuko tries to stop him. In the end - well... think circles.... It is a fairly interesting experiment - showing the paranoid style of the late 60s early 70s (an international style, after all)... Though what emerges from it, most interestingly, is the footage of Tokyo - buildings, roads, streets, apartments, neighborhoods, shops, signs, bridges, electric wires, etc. The landscape starts to feel real, while the people are insubstantial ghosts flitting about within it.

Now then: back to Bad Guy.

I am not sure what I think of Kim Ki-duk. This is hardly a pleasant film. The pimp kidnaps this college girl - spies on her with her clients, as she learns the trade, broods over her. Eventually the pimp and his pals fall on one another, and most end up dead, though he survives (quite miraculously, as he is stabbed twice during the film, sentenced to be hanged (but reprieved at the last moment), and bears the scar of a past throat cutting), and sets off to the coast with the girl, where she starts tricking among the fishermen. There is also, unfortunately, a bit of magic - the girl finds a torn up photograph that turns out to show the two of them together on the beach... Hey! It's just like Robbe Grillet or something! like the Oshima, come to think of it!

Anyway - the plot is obnoxious enough. At least the soulful pimp and Stockholm syndrome stuff. The style is odd: it is very handsome at times, there are a few extraordinary shots - but Kim hasn't got the greatest since of rhythm, his films tend to fall flat. I saw The Isle a couple years ago, and felt the same way - handsome looking, but with very little snap or rhythm; there are some startling images (the fishhook business in The Isle is worthy of Takashi Miike), but they are not well integrated into the film as a whole. Bad Guy is similar - it looks good - that understated, slightly gritty style that some Korean and Japanese films feature (never as slick as American crime pictures, even Tarantino - nor as jumpy and unsettling as Hong Kong films, or the more aggressive Japanese and Korean films - or European crime pictures, which tend to go for the documentary look, if I remember right.) The acting is also understated - or - the main characters are: they are ciphers - the people around them, oddly, are far more animated than they are. Have more, clearer, motivations, backstories, emotions, etc. than they do.

Though it's things like that that keep me from writing Kim off as a hack (the "Freddy Mercury of Korean cinema" as Tony Rayns put it in Film Comment.) It's hard to get a handle on some of the features of this film, but it's something. One example is the way the central characters are flatter than the secondary ones. Another is the way Kim undermines expectations - scenes that look like they are about to turn violent become comic; scenes that look like two characters might connect, or turn romantic, turn violent or abusive - or a character will hit the wrong person. Here are two examples: 1) in prison, Han-gi's friend (Han-gi is the pimp) stages a breakout when Han-gi is on the way to the gallows - the friend locks up one cop and charges down the corridor with a club, and attacks - Han-gi... he also confesses the crime Han-gi is about to die for, so Han-gi is soon back on the street... 2) The end - the pimp and the girl have become friends - escaped the whorehouses and gang wars, gone to the sea. There, he fixes up a truck with a bed, two pillows, and they drive to the coast - where, in so many films before this, the crook asks for honest work and leaves his life of crime - but here, he's looking for customers for the girl. Logical, probably more believable than the usual story, but sill a mild surprise, which Kim exploits.

But is this enough to overcome the problems? The plot - which is no less predictable than offensive - of course she falls for him! Jeez, that's what whores do with their pimps! And the style of the film has the same problem - there is nothing here that hasn't been done before. (Except maybe the flat center, deeper periphery - maybe; and that might not be intentional.) There is never a feeling that there is anything new going on. None of those surprises are all that unusual - they are nicely done, subtle enough that you have to think about it a while to really catch the pattern, but definitely there.... But they are still nothing new. It rolls along without any real individuality, any real sense of invention or exploration. Compared to other Korean films I've seen recently (I've seen quite a few lately - I've been trying to track them down), Oldboy or Memories of Murder, say, even Joint Security Area (which I finally saw a couple weeks ago), there's very little here that feels like you're seeing something new. The whole thing feels like an attempt to work out how Beat Takeshi (say) makes a film.

Rendering unto Caesar

This story is making the rounds: a North Carolina baptist church expelled its democrats recently. The preacher is a rabid republican, who told his parishioners how to vote - he told them if they were going to vote for Kerry, they should leave the church - some of them resisted, and he finally demanded they sign a loyalty oath. ("he expected them to sign forms supporting his political and moral beliefs" - sounds like a loyalty oath to him, if that's any worse.) They walked out and were voted out. That is not pretty. Religion is a powerful force - but it is a force that is concerned with one's soul. And while it makes clear demands on one's behavior, behavior never translates directly into political positions. Politics, after all, is not about behavior, primarily - it is about organizing society. Morality intersects with politics but cannot be said to drive it. But the church's power over individuals is strong - the ability is there to bully people into doing things against their consciences. It's hard not to see that here. When this happens - religion ceases to be religion and starts to be nothing more than politics. And that is what the first amendment is meant to protect us against.

Changes

I have added a category to the sidebar - "The Arts" - being links to sites containing actual art, or artists. Right now, there's not much - a couple indispensible comic strips, with fairly direct links... More to come, hopefully at a quicker pace than I have been posting lately.

The devil is in the details

Uh oh! Apocalypse watchers beware! Turns out, the mark of the beast is 616 not 666.

A fragment from the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament, dating to the Third century, gives the more mundane 616 as the mark of the Antichrist.

I guess it wasn't Ronald Reagan after all.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Friday's Ritual Music Post

Without much adornment:

1 Babe, I'm on Fire - Nick Cave
2 Falling - Mission of Burma
3 Whiy Not - Yoko Ono
4 Two Little Fishes, Five Loaves of Bread - Sister Rosetta Tharpe
5 Parachute WOman - Rolling Stones
6 Galang - M.I.A.
7 Mojo Queen - Ike and Tina Turner
8 Cain't No Grave Hold My Body Down - Sister Rosetta Tharpe (so how does this happen exactly? 20 gig of music, and 2 songs come up off one record?)
9 Singapore - Tom Waits
10 Wasted Life - Stiff Little Fingers