Sunset Boulevard [1950)

This is the story of O.J. Simpson.

This is the story of Phil Spector.

Too much foreshadowing?

Scramble.  Scramble.

Scramble the meaning.

This is Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon come to life.

Fifteen years before anger published.

In France they have Angers.

And every George is a multiple.

Georges.

But what passion!

Yes, dear friends…

Sunset Boulevard is one of the strangest films ever made.

If you want to know from whence Mulholland Drive came, start here.

SUNSET BLVD.

Mulholland Dr.

If you’re really daft (and I am), you’ll think you’re watching that guy who played The Professor on Gilligan’s Island in one of the best films you’ve ever seen.

But there’s a big fucking difference between Russell Johnson and William Holden.

Or is there?

Just let the wind blow through the bellows of the pipe organ for a moment.

And imagine yourself in a dream so dark it could be a nightmare.

But it’s merely spooky.

The great art.

Has mystery.

What was director Billy Wilder groping for?

Never mind, for a second, the bursting cast.

Every extra a novel in themselves.

Just the story of Sunset Boulevard is enough to make a thinking person stagger into the intersection on the Rue Campagne-Première.

But there are so many intersections…

Mon ami.

It starts bad.

Like a second-rate Raymond Chandler ripoff.

But it compels you to stay with it.

A little underwater photography.

Novel.

The adjective.

So much hinges on Paramount Pictures.

The gate.

The arch.

And how criticism can thwart a career.

The straw that broke the needle in the camel’s eye.

It’s like something out of Breathless or Dr. No.

The precipitous turn.

Kicking up dust.

Before the boulevard was broken dreams and crack vials.

Syringes.

Just ordinary fascism.

Triumph over violins.

And we trace the line.

A shoulder.

A chin.

A palazzo.  A collection of post-Impressionists.

Because we want to know.

For nothing could be more mysterious.

Lost a husband to the Spanish flu.

Lost two more, too.

But one lives as a ghost.

And his monocle groove is strangely vacant.

Erich von Stroheim.

Unreal.

Whether in a Jean Renoir picture or here.

Whether behind the camera or acting in his own film.

In two places at once.

Like Schrodinger’s cat.

But nobody remembers Schrodinger’s chimpanzee.

And a little coffin.

And the steps Stroheim has to take to stand in a hole.

This is the story of Michael Jackson.

This is the story of Emmett Miller.

Not gone, but forgotten.

And it is the true way entertainment worked.

When mass media was born.

At a million miles an hour.

1900.

Or 1898.

Churning out pictures.

From the dream factory.

And wax cylinders.

And who cares about these young girls…we can always find more.

But Buster Keaton sits in for Miller.

Because there is nothing more sad than a sad clown.

The waxworks…

The rogues gallery.

It could have been Elektra.

But it had to be Richard Strauss.

1909.  1911.

Great silence on one coast.

And great noise on the other.

Direct from Europe.

This is the story of Thora Birch.

The greatest star who ever was.

And I am just a humble servant.

Max.

There will be Max.

Always a sadness over beauty.

When beauty is counted in but one way.

One dimension.

3-D clustered, but without 4 time.

But you can’t bullshit a bullshitter.

And actors are all full of nothing.

Must empty out.

Each time.

To fully fill.

May the best shell win!

So that she stalks the shit outta him.

Like some Transylvanian octopus.

And Igor schleps his stuff in the middle of the night.

Like some dream from Dreyer’s Vampyr.

What the fuck?!?

Poor William Holden is living in the decline of the West.

The sagging tennis court.

The bowling alley in the basement we never see.

Because it would be like the Biltmore on hard times.

Truly grotesque.

Decay.  And decadence.

Taken separately.  Different connotations.

A piece of rotting fruit in the trash.

And champagne supernovas of drunken, naked excess.

But they are one and the same.

When rooted word-wise to rot.

Gloria Swanson is the hysterical car-wreck-of-an-actress here.

You can’t look away.

Bride of Frankenstein.  Hell, Frankenstein himself.  Sex changed.  Sexless.

More hideous internally than externally.

And more nuts than the peanut gallery of an old picture house.

But no locks.

Perhaps a lock of hair…

But no gas.

No blades.

No.

It’s quite a spooky thing to be trapped in such luxury.

Such trappings.

Camelhair.  Vicuña.

What the hell!

She’s paying, right???

Tails.

For godsake, man…Valentino danced the tango here!

But now the tarantula hums.

Manipulative receives new meaning.

An actress.  A star!  And that Roaring Twenties, gilded, cocksure, brassy optimism.

Unfazed by decades of disuse.

“She’s doin’ the ballet on/both of her wrists”

Goddamn…

If Echo & the Bunnymen were around in 1950…

William Holden has been sucked in.

To a vortex.

And it ain’t no fun.

No funny business.  No funnymen.

Plenty of echoes.

Of his past life.

Mingled with her omnipresent portraiture fecundating the stale mansion.

“He could die happily ever after”

Bob Dylan knew about the pillars.

And the pillory of fame.

And so C. B. DeMille was a natural choice.

To depict the heartbreak.

Of a washed up life.

Hate to break it to you, kid…

But the diva is in denial.

Yes, the bitch is back.

Take Elton and a whole gaggle of crocodiles…and the Isotta Fraschini with the leopard seats.

Several leopards died for your ass(es).

How’s the weather up there?

And so she rides a white swan because she’s born to boogie.

With the swagger of Bolan.

Norma Desmond.

Monomaniacal about beheading the past.

On a platter.

American montage shows the unwieldy devices–to make young again.

Strobo-oscillo-sonic skin tauteners.

Franju had a less frightening story sans yeux.

Face without eyes.

Ah! […]

But the eyes have it all!!!

The fire of once-great dominance.

Champagne.  Caviar.

The eeriness of Sunset Boulevard is that Gloria Swanson WAS once a great star (sort of).

And even more so, Erich von Stroheim WAS (REALLY FUCKING WAS) a great director!

And so Billy Wilder managed to tell their stories.

Only the names were changed to protect the guilty.

Devotion till the end.

Love for cinema.

Love for a woman.

A woman is a drum.

Where’s Duke Ellington when you need him???

Jealousy.

Jalousie.

Film noir.

Horizontal shafts of light.

But shadows all the more prominent.

This is our Rembrandt.

Our chiaroscuro.

How insensitive…

Norma with bitter, vindictive precision.

And then the curtain is pulled back on the waterworks.

And the fucking Pompidou explodes in hideous reds of dysfunction.

Yes.

Come and see where I live.

In a lonely place…

Maybe it’s better you don’t know me.

But he really wants to say, “Will you marry me?”

On this night.

What sadness.

We think such overwrought misery only exists in the movies.

But the intersections of real life sometimes make such tragedy possibly.

And we shouldn’t wish such on our worst enemies.

She can’t stand the shock.

But cinema is the ultimate beauty.

So fragile at the end…

We give thanks to see such a picture.

To see Stroheim one more time.

“Alright, boys…  Let’s rev up those cameras!”

To see the silent era stagger down the stairs one more time.

Like a wrought-iron flower.

With a green patina.

Nickelodeons penny on the dollar.

Kicked to the curb.

Save for Langlois.

She just needed one more shot at youth.

It was too much, too soon.

One last shot in the arm of that excitement!

That camaraderie of Hollywood.

Before it became a drag.

Her youth.

Memory is scary as hell.

-PD

The Man Who Knew Too Much [1956)

Netflix seems to be down tonight.

I tried several times.  Several movies.  Several fixes.

And so it is only fitting that history should trump the ephemeral stages of technological development.

Yes, time for a good old VHS tape.

And not a film about which I’ve previously written.

While I have surveyed many of the early Hitchcock films, I never wrote about the original version of this film.

1934.

To my knowledge, this is the only film of Alfred Hitchcock’s early career which he chose to remake.

Just on this fact alone, it would seem that the story was either very dear to the auteur or that he couldn’t resist something about the plot.

Granted, the two films are considerably different.

Even on a surface level, the 1934 version was (of course) in black and white.

But this was a VistaVision, Technicolor production.

1956.

22 years later.

For better or worse, I was familiar first with the earlier version.

It is a film I should revisit.

But it was not what I would call a “home run”.

The one aspect of the original which one might miss in the remake is the presence of Peter Lorre.

But we must move on to the future.  The present.

1956.

Jimmy Stewart plays the leading male role.  A doctor from Indianapolis.

Doris Day plays his wife.

The action is set for a good bit in Morocco.

Specifically, Marrakesh.

Indeed, the beginning of the film is a sort of travelogue.

In other words, its a good excuse to show off the exotic locale in North Africa.

Camels.  Veils.  [that one’s important]  The social tradition of eating with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.  While leaving the left hand in the lap.

All very edifying and exciting.

But Doris Day is suspicious from the start.

If we knew nothing of Hitchcock, we’d say her paranoia was unfounded.

But, in fact, it’s Jimmy Stewart’s ease which is the fateful misstep early on.

And so this movie is about suspicion.

Who can we trust?

In this age of anxiety (thank you W.H. Auden), everyone and everything is suspect.

The only true bliss is ignorance.

[and perhaps my only wisdom is that of paraphrase]

One thing which escaped me the first time I saw this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the theater…lucky me) was a funny detail about Brenda de Banzie.

Yes, dear readers (and fans of Peter Sellers), Ms. de Banzie would later appear as the annoying, flamboyant Angela Dunning in The Pink Panther (1963).

Indeed, her role as the terror of Cortina (d’Ampezzo) was her second-to-last film.

But here she is a much more mysterious character.

I will leave it at that.

We get some interesting things in this film.

“Arabs” in disguise.

Which is to say, certain personages of the spook variety in brown makeup (and native garb).

One need not look very far back in history to find a poignant parallel.

Consider, for instance, the “Basra prison incident” of 2005.

I’m guessing that T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) would provide another example, though I am no expert on this matter.

As are almost all Hitchcock films, this one is a tense affair.

Doris Day, in particular, does a surprising job of portraying the personal terror of her character.

Perhaps most notable about this film is the musical component.

As an accomplished percussionist in my own right, I heartily appreciate Hitchcock’s attention to the intricacies of an orchestral percussion section.

Indeed, the film begins with a close-up of this little-featured “choir” (in addition to the three trumpets and three trombones at the bottom of the frame).

What is most remarkable is Hitchcock’s use of the musical score (in various permutations) to tell this unique story.

Funniest is the shot of the cymbalist’s sheet music.

It is nearly a complete tacit…save for one fateful crash.

I fondly remember (with some measure of anxiety) a time when I manned the cymbals for the overture of Verdi’s La forza del destino.

It was a similar affair.

Interminable waiting.

And if you miss your one crash?  Even in rehearsal?

Well, you are screwed!

The judging stares of oboists are enough to melt a man…

But the musical score appears elsewhere.

In the private box.

Perhaps a page-turner for an assassin.

Most vividly, Hitchcock makes the score come alive in a fascinating series of extreme close-ups.

It is like a very erudite version of “follow the bouncing ball”.

So yes…some of our action happens at the Royal Albert Hall.

In an interesting twist of fate, usual Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann garners copious screen time as the conductor…OF ANOTHER COMPOSER’S WORK!

Were it Beethoven, I’d understand.

But the piece is Storm Clouds Cantata by Arthur Benjamin (who?) and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (not to be confused with [Percy] Wyndham Lewis).

And yet it is a moving piece.

The London Symphony Orchestra sounds lovely (really magical!) in their on-screen segments.

But the real Leitmotiv of our film is “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”.

Speaking of magic…it is always a gossamer thing to hear Doris Day sing this song in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I remember a time when I didn’t know this song at all.

Being in a studio with Corinne Bailey Rae and hearing a playback of her wonderful band own this song.

And my discovery of Sly and the Family Stone’s inimitable version (sung by Rose Stone).

But few movie music moments equal Doris Day in her Marrakesh hotel room singing “Que Sera, Sera…” with little desafinado Christopher Olson.

The only ones which come close are Rita Hayworth (actually Jo Ann Greer?) singing the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” the next year (1957) in Pal Joey and Ms. Hayworth “singing” (actually Anita Kert Ellis) “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda (1946).

An interesting note about this version of The Man Who Knew Too Much…

It seems to be a sort of forgotten classic, wedged as it is between the first of my Hitchcock “holy trinity” (Rear Window, 1954) and the other two perfect films (Vertigo, 1958, and North by Northwest, 1959).

Actually, this was a period of experimentation for Hitchcock.

Our film most precisely follows the odd comedy (!) The Trouble with Harry (1955) and precedes the black and white hand-wringer The Wrong Man (released later in 1956).

But The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) should not be forgotten!

It is such a beautifully-shot film!

Robert Burks’ cinematography is divine.

And George Tomasini’s editing is artfully deft.

Like To Catch a Thief (which is actually on Netflix in the U.S. [last time I checked]), The Man Who Knew Too Much is a film which perhaps needs multiple viewings to be truly appreciated.

-PD

Salinger [2013)

I read every book J.D. Salinger ever wrote.

This was, of course, due to The Catcher in the Rye.

If my memory serves me, it was the first book I ever enjoyed reading.

The first book that ever made me laugh.

[what a concept!]

And so I made it through the other three books published during the author’s lifetime.

None of them made the same impression upon me as had Catcher, yet I knew this was a special, special writer.

One story did, however, stick with me for unrelated reasons.

That story was “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.

And the connection was Richard Manuel (of The Band)…who died in a similar way (and in Florida, near enough in my mind…city notwithstanding) to the protagonist of that haunting little tale.

But I am not obsessed with J.D. Salinger.

Indeed, I had not given thought to him in quite some time.

His writing affected me deeply, but it was not the kind of stuff that I wished to revisit.

Once was enough.

But still…

Perhaps his greatest work…was his strange, mysterious life.

THAT is what fascinated me!

Long after the books ended.

In my literary pantheon, there is one very small category which holds but two authors:  Salinger and Pynchon.

The recluses.

And so, in the final estimation, Salinger was the consummate artist.

A genius of public relations as much as a weaver of phrases.

Well, dear friends…if you relate to any of the above, then you absolutely must see the documentary Salinger.

What is particularly fascinating is that our author was in counterintelligence.

Yes, by this I mean to infer that Salinger’s self-imposed exile was very much a calculated move from the mind of a trained spook (for lack of a better word).

But there’s more to the story…

Salinger likewise was a soldier.

World War II.

Voluntary.

From D-Day through V-E Day.

299 days (as director Shane Salerno makes wonderfully clear).

But if this has not piqued your curiosity about this mammoth of 20th-century literature, consider the pithy, icy story of how Salinger was jilted, while at war (!), to the benefit of an Englishman [wait for it] living in America…

Yes, his girlfriend married Charlie Chaplin.

While J.D. was seeing men die in France and Germany to push back and defeat the Nazis.

And the cherry on top of that bitter sundae?

His erstwhile girlfriend was the daughter of America’s only Nobel-prize-winning dramatist:  Eugene O’Neill.

This is the kind of stuff any documentarian would drool over.

But likewise, portraying the delicate enigma of Salinger is a task which could have resulted in crumbling failure with any faux pas (in its literal sense).

Shane Salerno (any relation to Nadja…Sonnenberg?) crafted a thoroughly engrossing document of Salinger’s richly-fabriced life.

But the coup comes at the end (and it is not too much of a spoiler to reveal this).

Salinger appears to be the primary source (if Wikipedia is to be even marginally trusted) concerning the forthcoming publication of Salinger’s fruits of reclusion.

We have a timetable:  2015-2020.

40% has come and gone.

You know, I never thought I’d live to see the day when a “new” Salinger book hit the shelves.

And I won’t believe it till I see it.

But one thing is for sure:  I’m buying.

Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Salinger.

He passed away in 2010.

What a special gift he had!

What joy he shared with the world!!

It was the real thing.

The masses, after all, CAN (in the final estimation) tell the difference between shit and Shinola.

And to all the critics who ever panned J.D. out of jealousy, a big “Fuck you” is in order.

One more thing…

This review is dedicated to all those who travelled up to Cornish, New Hampshire hoping to catch a glimpse of the man…

All those who left a note…

All those whose pleas fell on deaf ears…

I know your dedication.

My hero is Jean-Luc Godard.

I know.

I know letters.

I know the long-distance call.

My Cornish, New Hampshire just happens to be Rolle, Switzerland.

But I know.

And I want to make this very clear.

You are not dupes.

You had the open hearts to dream.

And you let an author into your lives.

Perhaps J.D. Salinger was incapable of expressing his gratitude for all of you.

Perhaps out of some kind of self-hate.

But I’m bold enough to speak for the man.

He loves you.

Always did.

Always will.

Else, he never would have given you Holden in the first place.

-PD

Futureworld [1976)

My first foray into science fiction.

And is this a hell of a film!

A sort of forgotten masterpiece.

Part schlock, part genius.

Stellar entertainment.

This is really a quality picture…reminiscent of another 70s gem:  Phantom of the Paradise.

There’s just something really mysterious and compelling about Futureworld.

Sex with robots!

Jim Antonio is the Clark Griswold equivalent of Clifton James in Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.

And so this is essential viewing for fans of the recent Ex Machina.

Sadly, director Richard T. Heffron is no longer with us.

And, yes, this is a sequel to the Michael Crichton film Westworld, but Futureworld stands alone.

Peter Fonda is the Ur- Jarvis Cocker.  And really some fine acting from Peter.

Blythe Danner is outstanding.

Stuart Margolin is very strong.

We get journalism, robots, cloning…the works.

Think Hillary Clinton has a robot/clone double?

This film appeared on Hulu at a particularly suspicious time as regards that canard.

But see the film and you might not think it’s so crazy after all.

Doubles of world leaders.

That’s the master plan.

It’s not giving much away to tell you that.

That is, after all, the elevator pitch for the film itself.

And it is compelling.

Retina scanners, biometrics, psychic driving, Antonin Artaud…

This was both advanced and historical for 1976.

Ahead and behind.

Which is to say, completely plausible.

The only hilariously bad moments (ok, there’s quite a few) are the guns which seemingly came from the set of the first Star Wars film.  Said guns completely destroy suspended disbelief (more than any actual target).

The Westworld tragedy supposedly claimed the lives of about 50 guests.

Pretty close to the fake Pulse nightclub shooting (49).

That being the exact number of the Maidan snipers’ massacre in Kiev (49).

And with Pulse we are there in theme park central.

Disney.

Alligator.

Same week.

Orlando.

Robots are all around us today.

The drones that kill innocent people in Pakistan.

And the driverless cars rolled out by Uber this past week in Pittsburgh.

[I better watch what I say or Emil Michael will sic his opposition research wet dreams on me.]

So yes…we probably have Northrop Grumman to thank for 9/11 (Global Hawk).

All around us.  Automation.  Lovely.

Watch Futureworld and you will see the technocratic extension of Operation Mockingbird.

Mimic.  Opinion leaders.  Memetics.

The gene and the meme.  Dawkins was right on it.

In the same year.  1976.

Sure, this film is not very precise in some regards.

Are they all robots?

Clones?

Hybrids?

It’s not very clear.

I highly recommend this film for connoisseurs of Baudrillard.

This whole film is an orgy of simulation.

[Though, with a PG rating, not a simulation of an orgy.]

Interesting note…a significant portion of this film was shot “at NASA” in Houston.

 

-PD