Saturday, October 06, 2007

Recent Screenings

"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."
Jean Cocteau

Death Takes a Holiday (1934) - Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Starring Fredric March, Evelyn Venable and Guy Standing.

Imagine Jean Cocteau being lured to Hollywood in the 1930s and directing a romantic comedy/drama in which Death is one of the lovers. Maybe Luis Buñuel collaborates a bit on the screenplay. And Giorgio de Chirico helps design the sets. But it's all very Hollywood at the same time. Well, that's the kind of the territory one enters in the unique and unusual Death Takes a Holiday. I'm not sure I've seen seen a classic Hollywood film quite like it. There's something strange about this movie, something hard to pin down. Whatever lies at the heart of its mysterious charm, I've seen it twice now, and both times I came away feeling like I had just experienced a wonderful and atmospheric little treasure.

Based on an Italian play (La Morte in vacanza) by Alberto Casella, the film features Fredric March in the impossible role of Death. Curious about human experience and angry that everyone is always so frightened of him, Death decides to take on human form for three days. He shows up at an opulent villa in Italy, where an aristocratic family and several friends are currently staying. After striking a deal with the Duke, Death takes form as Prince Sirki, "from a distant land." He spends time with the various people on hand but is particularly drawn to a beautiful young woman named Grazia. Though engaged to the Duke's son, she is equally intrigued by the Prince. As his time runs out in human form, Sirki becomes disillusioned with the endless social activities of his hosts, all of which seem futile attempts at filling up their time. He wants to experience love, but the clock is getting closer to midnight. Finally, he encounters Grazia again at a ball, and he finally understands the "dream that lifts [men] above their dust... and their little days." Grazia longs to go with him to his distant land. Will she follow where he is going?

I've mentioned before what a delicate balancing act Sunset Blvd. managed to achieve among various genres. Death Takes a Holiday accomplishes a similarly impressive feat. It's too funny to be a straight romantic drama, and too serious and morbid to be a straight comedy. The humor is often sly and dark in tone. Since Death has taken a holiday, nobody dies. A broken-hearted lover jumps off the Eiffel Tower but survives. Death/Prince Sirki feels bad about it: "I wish I could've helped him." But it's not really a black comedy, missing the essential cynicism of that genre. It's often classified as a fantasy film, but that doesn't feel quite right. It's more a philosophical Surrealist affair. I don't really know what it is, but it works.

The film pulls off its balancing act in part because of the sturdy, matter-of-fact direction of Mitchell Leisen, who today is probably only known to a few classic film buffs but was well-respected in his own time. I've seen four of his films now, and all of them have been great, and two may wind up among my 100 Favorite Films whenever I finish my new list.

But the real key to Death Takes a Holiday is the incredible performance by Fredric March. Whenever the film needs a counter-point emotion to keep it on track, he delivers the perfect mood. He's funny, menacing, suave, naive, world-wise, poetic, fierce, and romantic. Was there a better actor working in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s than Fredric March? I'm not sure. I don't know who else could've pulled off the role of Death with such sheer ability and panache. Just when you think it's going to ease into a simple, comic Hollywood movie, March suddenly turns dark and brooding. "What a monstrous comedy," he says of his predicament at one point, and we know he means the whole human condition. When one of the young female guests tries to land him as a royal catch, he forces her to look into his eyes. Terrified at what she sees, the young woman freaks out and tries to get away from him. He may be funny a lot of the time, as when he gets initially upset at someone referring to death as "the old man," but he's not messing around. He wants an answer to his question about human experience, and if his hosts don't comply, he has no qualms about taking all of them with him when he goes.

Perhaps it's this setting of Death among the aristocrats that makes me think of Buñuel, who used a similar device for several of his films, including the deliciously dark Exterminating Angel. Also, there is a strong Mediterranean Catholic element at work in the film. It is, perhaps, that which distinguishes Death Takes a Holiday from your typical Hollywood offering. When I realized upon second viewing that it had been based on an Italian play in the Surrealist 1920s, a lot of things came together for me. At the beginning of the movie, while the aristocrats are slumming at the local village festival, Grazia is in a dark church, praying. She's strongly romantic, almost mystical in her outlook. And while one could say her love of Sirki shows a certain obsession with death, it could also be seen as a mystical desire for unity with the unknown. But there's no doubt that the original story owes much to the frequently dark and mysterious Catholicism of Italy, Spain and France that produced Surrealists like Dali, Buñuel and Cocteau.

There are three other crucial aspects of the film that give it weight and solidity. The first is the excellent and atmospheric cinematography by Charles Lang. Though you may not recognize his name, Lang was nominated for 18 Oscars for cinematography in his long career (tied for the most ever) and shot several Billy Wilder films, including Sabrina, Some Like It Hot and Ace in the Hole. His camera work in Death Takes a Holiday shows an obvious debt to Cocteau, whose first film, Blood of a Poet, had come out a few years before. The second crucial aspect of the film, which works in perfect tandem with Lang's photography, is the Surrealist-inspired set design. Most of the action takes place at the villa, with numerous shadowy arches, statues in the garden, and black and white tiled floors that all seem lifted from Di Chirico paintings. Meanwhile, as characters stroll or waltz in this atmospheric setting, the strains of Debussy and Chopin can be heard at times, and the haunting music accentuates the lush, dream-like quality of the surroundings. Somebody on this project had a strong working knowledge of Surrealism and used it to great advantage in what could've easily been a bland Hollywood production.

Besides March, most of the acting is top-rate. Evelyn Venable has an unenviable role as the beautiful, romantically/mystically-inclined Grazia. A lesser actress could've easily gone headlong into schmaltz, but Venable invests her portrayal with just enough dignity. Henry Travers (Clarence the angel in It's a Wonderful Life) provides comic relief and a sly, world-weary outlook as the Baron. Guy Standing, as the Duke, also does well.

The film drags a bit between its interesting opening scenes and the point where Fredric March shows up. And I could've used less of the family and more of March's first two days, which are hinted at more than depicted. But if one stays with the movie, it is a special work, a rare bird from from 1930s Hollywood. Unfortunately, this wonderful film is currently only available in video or in DVD as a part of the Deluxe Edition of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 remake starring Brad Pitt (and of which I've read little that is positive.) That's really a crime, as Death Takes a Holiday is a unique and wonderful American classic and should not only be presented on its own but should be restored to the best condition possible. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Zodiac (2007) - Directed by David Fincher. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr.

From 1969 through the early 1970s, a serial killer who called himself Zodiac terrorized San Francisco and surrounding counties. The police were never able to arrest anyone, despite Zodiac sending cryptic letters to them, as well as to the various San Francisco newspapers. David Fincher, who directed Fight Club and Se7en, presents us with a combination feature - part serial killer movie and part police procedural-journalistic investigation. The script is based on a book by one of the people involved in the case - an unlikely source: an editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with the case and worked on it even after the paper and the police had given up on it. Fincher's film is, in fact, ultimately about obsession, both on the part of Zodiac, who couldn't stop himself from killing; and on the part of Detective Toschi, who led the case for the SFPD; the cartoonist, Robert Graysmith; and the Chronicle's crime reporter, Paul Avery. Though we see Zodiac's murders, most of the narrative follows the three men pursuing him. We watch what happens to them, their careers and their families as they become more and more obsessed with the case.

The acting in the film is quite good all around. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, the cartoonist, who was literally an Eagle Scout, and never seems to quite fit in at the newspaper. He loves puzzles, keeps to himself, doesn't drink or smoke. But as he becomes obsessed with the case, he spends more and more time lurking around Avery's desk, "looming," as Avery says. "Remember, we talked about the looming." Graysmith is a nerd. Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr., is a cool hedonist. It's the late 1960s-early 70s, and he enjoys the recreational drinking and drugs available. In the end, that's how he handles (or doesn't handle) his obsession. Meanwhile, Detective Toschi, portrayed well by Mark Ruffalo, struggles to keep his home life together, as well as his hard-fought-for position in the police force.

There are couple of disturbing scenes of violence (this is the director of Se7en, after all), but most of the film follows the somewhat pedestrian aspects of the various investigations. Fincher's direction is good at the beginning, but the film starts to drag after a while. I like what the story is trying to do, following out these obsessions, but strictly as an investigative film, I found it lacking in some respects. Elements are introduced and then disappear. Clues that seem like they might be important are never brought up again. Part of this is due to the very nature of obsession, trying to follow out some mystery to the bitter end. There are many, many dead ends along the way. I respect Fincher's willingness to show us that. But there are also plot holes. I hate plot holes in otherwise intelligent films. And the obsessive people in this film wouldn't stand for plot holes. They spent years and years pouring over holes in the case.

Zodiac is a creepy, fascinating film, and has a lot going for it. Fincher has a good eye for disturbingly absurd aspects of life. The first victims, a young couple, are listening to Donovan when they're shot multiple times in a violent, bloody scene. But the song is "Hurdy Gurdy Man," which, as Fincher has keenly recognized, has its darker aspects. There is, by the way, a great soundtrack in this film. Go for the ride, don't ask too many questions, and it's a dark, interesting journey. RECOMMENDED.

The Battle of Algiers [La Battaglia di Algeri] (1966) - Written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Starring Yacef Saadi, Jean Martin and Brahim Hadjadj.

Anyone interested in what's happening in Iraq right now should see this film. Hell, even if you don't have any interest in Iraq, you should still see it - it's a landmark motion picture, the father of the modern political thriller. Though it's over 40 years old now, Battle of Algiers seems like it could've been made this year. And, in fact, it was being shown at the Pentagon at some point recently. For one thing, it makes you realize once and for all that the United States of America is involved in a colonialist occupation of an Arabic country. You can talk all you want about "The War on Terror" and all of our noble-sounding ideals about bringing democracy - sorry, free-market democracy - to the Middle East, but once you see how close our situation is to that of the French in Algeria, you can't fool yourself anymore. All you can do is act like Col. Mathieu in the film, the scarily efficient and no-shit Frenchman in charge of combating the Algerian "terrorists." Our version is General Petraeus - sort of. We still want to convince ourselves that our occupation is a "good" one. Mathieu doesn't really bother with the political or philosophical debate. His stance is basically: If you believe the occupation is good, then we have to torture the Algerians. I found his manner refreshing in some ways. How terrifying.

For some reason, I thought Battle of Algiers was a documentary film, and so I avoided it for a long time. But it's not. It's shot in a documentary style and was based on a book by one of the Algerian resistance leaders, Yacef Saadi, who also stars in the film. But it's still a fictional account. The important difference in this fact, is that the movie plays out dramatically as a suspense film. I have to be in the right mood for a political documentary. But give me a suspense film, and I'm there. I don't know what that means. My first instinct is that it's not a good thing, that I'm not serious enough about important things. But then I realize, deep down, it's probably healthier. I believe more in the "truths" of fiction, perhaps, than I do non-fiction. Political documentaries can too often have a smug, self-righteous tone when it comes to doling out the "truth." (See Michael Moore.)

Instead, The Battle of Algiers gives you history, politics and philosophy in an entertaining suspense film, with a powerful human component. That doesn't make it any less penetrating or effective. Or contemporary. A young Algerian woman leaves a bomb in her handbag in a French bar, killing numerous people. Later, one of the intellectual leaders of the Algerian resistance, who has been captured, is brought before the French press. A reporter asks him if it isn't cowardly to plant bombs in baskets and handbags. He replies, "And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets."

This is an intellectually potent and challenging film, as well as entertaining. Most of the story follows a young, uneducated Algerian who slowly transforms into one of the leaders of the resistance. It's also an emotionally compelling film, sending shivers down the spine at times. After most of the Algerian figures in the film have been hunted down by Mathieu's forces and killed, there is suddenly a large-scale and spontaneous resurgence of ordinary Algerians who take to the streets in protest. It's a dramatic conclusion, and also a important lesson: When it seems that you've cut off the heads of the underground movement, the serpent can rise up again, even more powerfully than before. This is why military solutions to situations like this are ultimately useless if they're not part of an overall diplomatic and political solution. Ask the Spanish how many times their government has "cut off the heads" of the Basque terrorist group ETA.

In addition to the feature film, the DVD contains not one but two extra discs loaded with interviews, documentaries, essays, etc. The Battle of Algiers was an important film in terms of style and impact, and it's interesting to hear some contemporary directors talking about its influence on them. It's also interesting to see the interview with Yacef Saadi many years later. Don't miss this great, great film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Galaxy Quest (1999) - Directed by Dean Parisot. Starring Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell.

For anybody who's ever spent to much time watching (and reading about) Star Trek, this is a hilarious and delightful comedy that manages to skewer the Trekkie phenomenon, but with the kind of care and attention that can only come from great love of the subject matter. Whoever came up with the idea for this film deserves extra bonus points - it's so simple and brilliant. The cast of an old sci-fi TV show called Galaxy Quest is now reduced to signing autographs at conventions and cutting ribbons at the opening of a new megastore. ("By Grabthar's hammer . . . what a savings.") Meanwhile, real space aliens (The Thermians) who are on the verge of being destroyed by their enemies have intercepted old transmissions of the show and believe that their only hope for survival rests on the great Captain Taggart ("Never give up. Never surrender.") and his trusty crew. Naive and desperately hopeful, the Thermians don't seem to realize that their hero, Captain Taggart, is really just a washed up, self-centered actor named Jason Nesmith, who's been reduced to drinking himself to sleep, or that the rest of the crew doesn't really like each other all that much at this point. Still, the actors wind up in space and are forced into the kind of adventure that they played at all those years. They just don't seem to have learned much from their previous experiences. ("Didn't you guys ever WATCH the show?!")

Besides the great premise, Galaxy Quest can also be held up as an example of perfect casting. I was never a Tim Allen fan, but he's very good as the egotistical but charming Jason Nesmith. It's hard to imagine a better portrayal of a William Shatner/Captain Kirk-like figure. Alan Rickman hits every note right as a former Shakespearian actor ("I played Richard III . . . There were five curtain calls.") who hates himself for winding up on TV and hates Nesmith for hogging all the limelight. Sigourney Weaver, as a buxom blond (!), plays off her own fame as the smart, tough Ripley in the Alien films, delivering a hilarious performance. And Tony Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell add their own delightful and wonderful touches to round out the cast.

I don't know how I missed this when it came out. I was in Spain, I guess. Thanks to Liam for recommending it. It's loaded with hilarious lines and perfectly captures both the inanity of shows like Star Trek ("Does it help to roll on the ground?") as well as the adventure and great storytelling. An instant favorite. RECOMMENDED.

The Killers (1946) - Directed by Robert Siodmak. Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmond O'Brien.

Lancaster and Gardner both became stars after this excellent film noir based on Ernest Hemingway's short story of the same name. In Hemingway's tale, recurring character Nick Adams finds himself in a diner taken over by two gunmen who are waiting for an ex-boxer named "The Swede" to come in for dinner. After a tension-filled time of waiting, the gunmen realize the Swede's not showing up, so they go out to look for him. Nick knows where the Swede lives and goes to warn him about the two killers. To Nick's surprise, the tough ex-boxer doesn't seem to care, as he just lies on his bed in the dark room, waiting for the inevitable. In just a few sentences, Hemingway has gone from gangster thriller to powerful existential drama about facing death.

I've always loved the story, but I wondered how anyone could turn such a perfect little tale into a full-length film. Well, producer Mark Hellinger brought in his co-author from an earlier crime drama they had done together, the classic Bogart film High Sierra. John Huston. By this time, Huston had already begun directing his own films, including the great Maltese Falcon. The only problem was that Huston had joined the army during World War II to make propaganda films and was still in uniform. He was also under contract to a different studio. So Huston's friend and sometime collaborator, Tony Veiller, served as a front, taking Hellinger's money and giving half to Huston. Then Veiller and Huston locked themselves up in a New York hotel room (and in several New York bars) and put together a great script. The question in their minds was: What would cause a tough boxer to wind up in a sad boarding house, surrendering to his certain death?

Well, a woman, of course. So Huston and Veiller constructed a series of flashbacks that show how the Swede got into such a position, waiting for his killers. They left in Nick Adams, but only in the first part of the film. Instead, they wrote in the character of an insurance investigator, played by Edmond O'Brien, who becomes intrigued by the case of this boxer, his gangland connections, and the woman who could lead him into such existential despair. For director, Hellinger got Robert Siodmak, one of the German emigrees who came to Hollywood during Hitler's reign. Siodmak had already directed a series of dark, psychologically interesting thrillers that featured innovative cinematography that was partly influenced by German expressionism, including Phantom Lady and The Spiral Staircase. These were some of the films the French began to discuss in terms of a genre called film noir. Hellinger wanted that same edge for his film, which was his first major project as an independent producer. In fact, he wanted to raise the stakes in terms of a harder, more realistic psychological crime film.

For the role of the boxer, Hellinger hired an unknown acrobat who had never been in a movie: Burt Lancaster. His muscular, brooding performance has been called the strongest of his career by some critics. But who would Hellinger get for the woman? He needed someone who could make a man "steal, go to prison, die for her," as one film writer put it. After a long, unsuccessful search, a fellow producer happened to see a sleeper of a film that featured a young actress named Ava Gardner. The producer worked next door to Hellinger and knew he had been looking for the right femme fatale. The next morning, he called Hellinger and said, "You better go see this girl." That night, Hellinger went to see the movie. He called Ava first thing in the morning and had her come in for an interview. Later, Hellinger said that Gardner got the role the moment she walked into his office. "It was sex-two-and-even." Would a man steal, go to prison or die for Ava? Well, she got to Frank Sinatra bad enough that he wound up slitting his wrists. Yeah, she works as a femme fatale.

Siodmak's taut direction, the excellent screenplay by Huston and Veiller, the solid acting from unknowns Lancaster and Gardner, and Elwood Bredell's fantastic black and white cinematography make The Killers a great example of film noir. RECOMMENDED.

Other films recently screened:

Foreign Correspondent (1940) 8/10 - Hitchcock directs Joel McCrea and Herbert Marshall in this tale of an American journalist investigating German secrets agents in London on the eve of World War II. Very good but not great Hitchcock.

Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (1948) 6/10 - I've been waiting to see this film for several years. Last Christmas, I was even given an original 1948 movie poster for it, a great, great present from my in-laws. How could it possibly live up to such a title, I thought? Well, it wasn't too bad in the end, saved mostly by a somewhat surreal series of scenes that take place in "Gaboolian's Riding Academy" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It's a warehouse full of mechanical animals and exotic make-beleive sets - a kind of precursor to Disney, but much more humble. Believe it or not, Gaboolian, the old Russian owner of the "Academy," was played by Michael Chekhov, nephew of the famous writer, Anton Chekhov. His only role of consequence in the U.S. was that of Dr. Bruloy in Hitchcock's Spellbound, for which he received an Oscar nomination. But he was a famous actor in Russia and studied under Stanislavski. He wound up as a drama teacher in New York, and his pupils included Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Marylin Monroe, Yul Brenner and other stars. The story of Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven is admittedly slight, but how could I not like a film about Texans hanging out in Prospect Park? There are some interesting shots at the beginning of the film that show Dallas in 1948, but Brooklyn, sadly, is mostly relegated to a studio version in Hollywood. There are several good secondary actors, including Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch), Irene Ryan, (Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies), Lionel Stander (Max from Hart to Hart), and William Frawley. Unfortunately, the print of the film was atrocious, as if someone had videotaped the movie while it was on television and then transferred the tape to DVD. Too bad. Eventually, everyone will realize what an important film this is, and I'm sure it will be restored with great care. (Cough.)

Sahara (2005) 8/10 - I don't know why this got such a bad rap when it came out. As long as you don't take it seriously, it's a very funny, fast-paced action-thriller, involving a Confederate ironclad that may or may not have ended up in the African desert, a deadly plague spreading rapidly through a West African country in the midst of a civil war, treasure hunters, a beautiful scientist from the WHO, and a corporate bad guy who's French. It's become one of my favorite action-comedies from the last few years. Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz were the big names, but Steve Zahn steals the show.

The Painted Veil (1934) 6/10 - Gretta Garbo and Herbert Marshall star in this 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name. Garbo was truly an amazing screen presence and shows why in her portrayal as the restless Katrin. Herbert Marshall also excels as her wounded husband, Dr. Fane. Unfortunately, despite several good scenes, the screenplay never fully develops. La Reina, who also saw last year's remake, says the narrative in that version was fleshed out much better.

Gangs of New York (2002) 4/10 - I've spent the last five years doing extensive research on New York City in the 1860s, and people kept telling me I had to see this film. Well, no, as it turns out, I didn't. I could have easily spent the rest of my life without watching this overblown yet surprisingly dull, tedious, and historically inaccurate film. Scorsese took himself way too seriously on this one. A lot of people ragged on Cameron Diaz's acting, which I mostly found unmemorable, but what about the great Daniel Day Lewis' almost cartoonish portrayal of Bill, the Butcher? The violence at the beginning of the film verges on psychopathic and makes me wonder if Scorsese knows how to advance the emotional trajectory of his films without spilling (literally) buckets of blood. If I hadn't seen his Age of Innocence, I'd really wonder. His use of the 1863 Draft Riots (one of the most fascinating events in our country's history) as a backdrop for the climatic showdown is not only riddled with factual flaws but seems tacked on, careless, and intellectually suspect in its depiction. Bad history. Mediocre movie-making.


Jeff said...

Just a quick note, William, re: Gangs of New York.

I found that opening sequence with the odd subterranean Irish city and subsequent sectarian riot with opening speeches so strange and outlandish, I couldn't imagine that there was much historical accuracy in it. The rest of the movie seemed increasingly fanciful. I'd been meaning to ask you about it. Not one of Scorcese's better efforts, as far as I was concerned.

I work not far from Deham, MA, one of the oldest towns in the country. In the cemetery there are lots of old Civil War graves including a very prominent one of a Union officer named Carberry who was a naturalized Scot. The tombstone spoke of his part in the 1864 and 1865 battles and, conspicuously, the New York Draft Riots, with the epitaph "He did what he could." I figure this must have been a Scotsman who took great relish in cracking open a few Irish skulls.

Jeff said...

Sahara was good? It's hard for me to imagine it could possibly be an improvement upon the old WWII version with Bogie and those insolent Afrika Korps prisoners. Bogie in the white-flag colloquy with the German officers... "You know how those British are about their tea..."

Thanks for pointing out The Battle of Algiers. I'll check that one out for sure.

The Killers. I didn't know they made a movie out of that short story, which is one of my favorites by Hemingway. You should check out a parody called "The Crullers" in The Best of Bad Hemingway. Pretty funny.

cowboyangel said...

Well, to be frank, a lot of Irish deserved to have their skulls cracked during the Draft Riots. (And I say that as someone who is part Irish.) That wasn't exactly their shining moment in U.S. history. I mean, they set fire to an orphanage full of black kids. And that was only one of the many racist atrocities they committed over the course of several days. When I said that Scorsese was "intellectually suspect" in his depiction of the riots, I was referring mainly to the role of the Irish. I think he had one quick line about their bearing any responsibility. Meanwhile, heshows the Irish gang having a black member. The English guys were bad, overly zealous patriots and the Irish were poor downtrodden souls who at least integrated with other ethic groups. Yeah, right. 20% of the (surviving) African-American population fled the city after the riots.

Having said that, the soldiers, when they finally did arrive - a few days later - committed a fair number of atrocities themselves, driving people up onto the roofs of buildings and then over the edge. I don't believe, however, there was a ship in the harbor firing cannons on shore.

What's fascinating to me is how the riots went from being an economic revolt to a racist purge in a short time.

And Barnum's didn't burn in the riots! It was, actually, one of the few theatres that remained open. So, no elephants running wild in the streets. Interestingly, it did burn down two years to the day of the start of the riots - July 13, 1865.

cowboyangel said...

Actually, the new Sahara was based on a novel by Clive Cussler. it doesn't have anything to do with the Bogie Sahara film. I like both very much. I had never even heard of the Bogie one when I saw the video at the library one day. Both La Reina and I liked that one. An underrated Bogart flick.

Thanks for the Bad Hemingway link!

Jeff said...

I wasn't defending them or saying that they didn't deserve to have their skulls cracked. Having said that, I'll only point out that after seeing waves and waves of New York Irish thrown away carelessly into hailstorms of lead at places like Fredericksburg, perhaps they had a right to be upset about a law that extended the draft to age 45 (pretty old by 1865 standards) while wealthy nativists were able to buy themselves out of the draft. Were the Irish considered "white" enough at the time to be called racist? Perhaps. This is what happens at the bottom when two groups are scrabbling for what little is available to them economically. The attacks on African-Americans were inexcusable and reprehensible, but despite massive Civil War sacrifices, the Irish were still considered simian subhumans, even decades after the war. As far as the nativist Carberrys of the world were concerned, you might say they considered it "black-on-black crime", to borrow a phrase from conservative pundits today. The African Americans of New York were not their primary concern.

cowboyangel said...


You're right, of course, about how badly the Irish were treated here, especially at first. The whole Know-Nothing movement, etc. I still find it fascinating that some of them fought for Mexico against the U.S. because they were treated so badly here, as I mentioned in the review of Alvarez Kelly. And I don't blame them for rioting over the unfair draft laws.

And yes, I'm sure much of their dislike of the blacks came from economic conditions.

Were the Irish considered "white" enough at the time to be called racist? Perhaps.

By 1863, they were accepted enough to definitely be "white." Obviously, because of the project I work on, I know more about the entertainment and musical world than I do about other aspects of the society in that time period. But I can tell you that the Irish were receiving a tremendous amount of newspaper coverage in the 1860s, most of it positive. Dan Bryant was probably the most popular actor in the city, and the Irish dominated the popular musical & cultural venues. Most of the minstrels were Irish, and they were by far the biggest rage around then. Irish singers and dancers were everywhere. In comparison, there's no coverage at all of the blacks, except for the most denigrating and derogatory statements made when talking about the "darkies" being portrayed in the minstrel shows. Hard stuff to read sometimes. Every prejudice and preconception about the blacks imaginable. So while the Irish weren't at the same level economically as some of the older caucasian groups in the city, I don't get the idea that they were treated anything like the blacks by the overall society. Even economically they had made considerable gains by the 1860s, making up a large part of the police force, for example. And Tammany was already in full swing. Certainly Dan Bryant and other entertainment moguls were raking in major bucks.

Hell, the NY Times didn't even cover the blacks in the 1940s. I went through several rolls of microfilm for the entire year of 1940, doing research on jazz. That was probably the most important year in what might be the greatest art form of our country, when swing was still very popular and be-bop was coming up. For the entire year, the NY Times had something like two very brief announcements about Duke Ellington and a couple of ads for Billie Holiday when she was singing at Cafe Society. That's it. (Page after page of advertisements for furs, though.) So, while we're able to reconstruct a fair amount of the musical scene in NY in the 1860s, it would be impossible to do the same thing for jazz in the 1940s by using newspapers, because blacks were still absent.

Whatever. I didn't mean to get your Irish up! :-) Sorry if got going on the Draft Riots. I want to read more about those terrible days, because they are interesting and terrible. Somebody should set a film in that time period. Just not Gangs of New York. There was a lot going on. I wasn't sensitive enough to the overall context. Mea culpa.

Jeff said...


Sorry to let my Irish get way from me. :-) Shouldn't be so parochial, but then again, we are somewhat known for it, especially the Boston strain ("No Irish need apply", "No dogs and Irish allowed") I think an important thing to remember about the 19th century Irish in America is that they were mostly 2 or 3 years away from living as tenant farmers (in their own country) in thatched hut cottages with dirt floors and their pigs living in the front rooms with them. Hard to build a case of institutional racism against them, but I take your point on Tammany. In many cases, it was to escape starvation from a country that was exporting a net surplus of food to Britain. The tension with American blacks was tragic, because they actually are people whom the Irish should have felt much in common with. I think a fault of the Irish was that they needed someone to feel superior to somehow. I'm often struck by Irish who feel comfortable expressing bigoted "expert" opinions on blacks or Jews without having ever met one of either of them in their lives.

Interesting stuff you've been studying. I'd like to hear more.

crystal said...

I never saw the Gangfs of NY partly just that the previews didn't look so attractive and I don't care for Leo Di Caprio that much. My grandmother was a mick :-)

Galaxy Quest! Loved the Captain Kirk impersonation. And the part where the one guy realizes he's doomed because he has no last name :-)

I haven't seen Death Takes a Holiday, only the US remake, Meet Joe Black. I asssume it's better .... please tell me Death wasn't intrigued by peanutbutter.

Your review of Zodiac is really good. I bow to the master :-)

Jeff said...

Hey, speaking of Gangs of New York, what happened down at the Meadowlands the other day? The Giants wound up beating the Jets? I thought the Jets had that game in hand and under control!

cowboyangel said...

You're cruel, Jeff. Mr. "We're 5-0 and the Sox are going to the Series."

Well to put it in the most philosophical and academic terms I can think of: The Jets suck.

I didn't think they'd be great this year, but I thought they'd build on last season, compete through most of the year, and with a little luck go 9-7 or something. But, let me repeat, they suck. The offense sucks, the defense sucks, the play calling sucks, and our kicker can't do his job. Only Leon Washington on KO returns seems to be doing well.

Chad is done. I knew that last year, but it just gets increasingly obvious. The guy is an amazing competitor, great leader, etc., etc. But he can't throw the damn ball anymore. When they drop this next game to Philly, look for Mangini to go with Clemens. Playoffs are no longer an option - you might as well get him ready now. Personally, I think he shold've left Clemens in after the Baltimore game.

It's been a very disappointing season.

Thanks for brining it up. I appreciate your concern. I know it's heartfelt on your part.

The real question: Which 5-0 team wins on Sunday up in Foxboro? Patriots, on paper, should thump them pretty handily. It depends on which Tony Romo shows up. Did you happen to see the game last night between the Bills and Pokes? THAT was one crazy football game. And one of the most improbably endings I've ever seen in my life. (That seems to happen a lot on Monday Night Football games.) A lot of fun for me, however, as a very wounded Jets-Broncos fan, pulling desperately for Team #3.

cowboyangel said...


There was no mention, at any point, of peanutbutter in Death Takes a Holiday. There wasn't even a hint of peanutbutter.

Which makes me wonder even more if I want to see Meet Joe Black. The title alone makes me want to skip it. Whoever dropped the original title for that sorry one should've been fired.

Jeff said...

I liked Meet Joe Black. Anthony Hopkins was great, and I think Brad Pitt is a better actor than he's usually given credit for. He's not just a "pretty" face.

You inspired me to see The Battle of Algiers. Very good! I'm contemplating a possible post on it. Interesting perspective to look at things from the revolutionary "intellectual" side of things. The revolutionary as intellectual and idealogue got more creedence back in the sixties than he does today. Interesting, however, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Can mankind ever really change?

I loved the way that Algiers and the Casbah were filmed in that movie. Very beautiful in a way. I'm sure the style has served as the inspiration for many a film like the Bourne series and other Middle East thrillers.

I'm afraid that you are right about the Gang Green, but you know what? A lot of the NFL seems to suck this year. I can't believe how many bad teams there are out there. Nevertheless, I don't think that the Patriots will go undefeated this year, although I don't see how they can help but to win their division, considering how bad everyone else is. I think NE will lose eventually, but I don't think it will be to the Cowboys this weekend. I'm not sure these NFC front-running teams like Dallas and Green Bay are for real. The NFC is atrocious.

The Sox! I sat down and watched the Carmine Hose for a few innings tonoght, but you know, I really didn't follow baseball too closely this year, and I'm not going to jump on the badwagon now. Yes, you are right, though. These really are salad days for Boston sports fans. Don't forget BC football, ranked # 4 in the nation right now.

As for Liam and his beloved Mets, I feel badly. The Mets, the Mets, my gosh... what a collapse.

You've got to get rid of this word verification thing on your comboxes. It's making me crazy. :-)

cowboyangel said...


In theory, the word verification should be gone now. Let me know if it's not.

Interesting that you liked Meet Joe black. I like Brad Pitt and agree with you that he's a better actor than he's given credit for. Did you ever see Seven Years in Tibet? I thought he was very good in that - and also in 12 Monkeys. La Reina loved Death Takes a Holiday and is intrigued by the remake, so we might watch it.

Glad you liked Battle of Algiers. I'd love to read your post on it.

The revolutionary as intellectual and idealogue got more creedence back in the sixties than he does today.

It's interesting to see how things shifted in the Middle East from the Marxist influence earlier in the 20th Century - Nasser - being the big example - to what we have now, with the religious maniacs having more control. That's also the story of what's happening in Palestine, as Israel encouraged and even gave financial support to Hamas early on as a way of combatting the influence of the PLO. Or the Saudis, Pakistanis and the U.S. backing the muhajdeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. I'm not sure that was ultimately a good move. In theory, one could reason with Marxists. That's impossible with religious fanatics.

I can't say I miss the revolutionary as ideologue - Stalinism cured us of that, I hope. But I do miss the intellectual aspect of the revolutionary movements - the kind of systemic analytical skills the Marxists had. For all their flaws, they were often able to look at a system and really break down how it worked. I dislike some of their remedies, but their analysis had somestrong points. it's precisely this kind of analysis I find missing from political discussion in the United States. It still exists in Europe - or it did in Spain while I was there - but it's almost completely absent in our culture. Instead, we're left with the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Michael Moore. you can really sense this kind of analaytical ability, I think, in certain films from the sixties, Battle of Algiers being one of them. Compare it with Moore's Farenheit 911. Godard's 60s films also had this kind of analysis. though, he eventually succumbed to the ideologue part in the late 60s.

Great game by the Pats yesterday. I thought, briefly, that it might be a real game, when Dallas went up in the 3rd quarter. But that didn't last long. I'll be curious to see how they do against a really good defense. Maybe the colts on Nov. 4. Because I'm not sure the Pats defense is nearly as good as their offense. So if someone can slow down Brady & Co., they might have a chance.

Meanwhile, the Jets continue to plummet. I didn't even bother watching the game. And, in fact, I don't think I will watch them anymore until they put in Clemens. There's no point.

How about Vinny!!! Did you see the long bomb to Steve Smith? Peter King at Sports Illustrated went on and on about testaverde this morning. Pretty amusing.