The Ten Year Star Block

Recently, I was having a conversation online about the curious way that people tend to listen to musicians in ten year blocks.  Bob Dylan has done continuous and extensive composing from the early sixties through to today.  Paul McCartney, the same.  Springsteen, same, except up by one decade.  And yet most people, even their fans, know most of what they did in the first decade and little after.  It’s not that what they did after isn’t known, it is, but that the first ten years kind of set the mold for what was to follow, fair or not.  Shift to any other art and you’ll pretty much find the same thing, including the movies, and within them, movie actors or, as we call them around here, stars.  Stars are defined, whether they like it or not, by their first ten years of popularity (that popularity may begin five years into their career, ten years, or in the first year).  Today’s day on TCM belongs to Gary Cooper.  He won two Oscars for Best Actor, for the years 1941 and 1952 and made movies from the silents all the way into the sixties (just barely) and yet, if you asked me to reduce Cooper’s career to a ten year block, I’d choose 1933 to 1943.  All the signals tell me that’s the decade for him.  Whether he did good work in other years doesn’t really matter: That’s the ten year block that defines his career.

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August 29, 2015
David Kalat
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Go, Miss Mend, Go!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in TCM’s program descriptions, every single silent film shown is described with “In this silent film, …” as a sort of talismanic warning: Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

The presumption is clear: silent films are slow, they’re old, they’re in B&W, they’re silent.  Better warn people so no one turns in unsuspecting.

Of course, the bias is absurd.  Practically everything TCM shows is old and B&W, and most of it is slow–by modern standards, surely.  If you’re watching this channel, you’ve already signed up for a different pace and style to contemporary filmmaking.  So why the fear of silents?  Especially when there are such mad gems as the 1926 Soviet Russian serial Miss Mend, a cliffhanger-driven pulp adventure in the Fantomas vein.  Last week we talked about Arsene Lupin–if you enjoy that, this is up your alley too.

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KEYWORDS: Miss Mend
COMMENTS: 4
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Mundane Action: Vital, Important, Captivating

Today on TCM, a celebration of Ingrid Bergman will bring us many of the cinematic legend’s greatest films as well as some lesser known ones.  Early in the day, her first film after exiting Hollywood, Stromboli, airs and it contains one of my favorite scenes in any movie of the decade.  That scene comes when the fishermen of the island of Stromboli gather to net tuna for the village.  The scene actually is of them catching tuna using a centuries old method of corralling tuna into a central area where a net at the bottom is raised up from underneath the tuna and they are hooked and dragged into a long boat.  Simply watching this five minute sequence, apart from the rest of the film, is something I can and have done on multiple occasions.  It’s a fascinating detail about the lives of the islanders and the fact that it is shown in long, uninterrupted detail is a part of what fascinates me.  As I grow older, I find myself drawn into moments and scenes in movies where something detailed but undramatic plays out.  Actually more than undramatic, mundane.  Mundane action, done right, can be the most captivating part of any cinematic experience.

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Closing Act: Shelley Winters

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TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming ends on August 31st with a bang featuring a batch of movies starring Shelley Winters. The blond, boozy, ballsy and brash starlet is one of my favorite actresses and on Monday you can watch her ignite the small screen in a number of notable roles, including her Oscar winning turn as a bigoted and abusive mother in A PATCH OF BLUE (1965).

To celebrate Winters’s reign as Summer Under Stars closing act I thought I’d share some of the glamorous vintage advertisements she modeled for early in her career featuring the powerhouse performer selling everything from lipstick to beer. Shelley Winters may have been one of the greatest actors of her generation but much like her costar Barbara Stanwyck in EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)also airing on TCM this coming Sunday!the streetwise dame wasn’t ashamed to pitch products to her adoring public if it put money in the bank.

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Some days it all comes down to a single picture

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I can’t tell you how happy this picture makes me… but damned if I won’t try.

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Dreamlife: Shattered Image (1998)

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It has been four years since the Chilean director/mesmerist Raul Ruiz left this mortal coil, but it will take eternities to assess his work, comprising over one hundred features and shorts of labyrinthine, shape-shifting narratives. Of all of his oddball projects Shattered Image (1998) might be the oddest. It was his first film made with American producers, a dreamlike erotic thriller starring William Baldwin and Anne Parillaud (playing off her La Femme Nikita image). The production, which shot in Vancouver and Jamaica, was reportedly fraught, with Ruiz and DP Robby Muller clashing with the rest of the crew, who were used to the formula of TV movie productions. The resulting film is a curious mix of Ruiz-ian reverie and the gauzy softcore sleaze you’d find on late night Cinemax. Though not a movie with the same oneiric pull as Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), it remains stubbornly representative of his work, combining as it does the pulp narratives he loved as a child with the dream logic central to all of his films. As J. Hoberman wrote upon its opening in the prestige picture season of 1998 (against A Bug’s Life and the Psycho remake), “part of the movie’s pleasure is imagining an entire multiplex audience looking around at each other and wondering, “What the f**k?”

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Grab Your Tux and Let’s Go Clubbing

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Between Capitolfest and TCM’s focus on stars from the 1930s, I have discovered a newfound love for films from the Depression era. Among the many reasons for this recent interest is the imaginative, almost dream-like quality to some of the production design. I don’t know a lot about Golden Age production designers beyond recognizable names such as Cedric Gibbons and Hans Dreier, but I am beginning to understand the connection between their set designs and the overall tone or ambiance in films from this time frame.

Some of my favorite set designs are of nightclubs. Nightclubs and speakeasies boomed in America during the late 1920s, boosted by Prohibition and the liberation of women after securing the right to vote. Though clubs were regularly raided, many survived the end of Prohibition to become successful in the 1930s. Famous clubs like the Rainbow Room or the Park Avenue Club boasted elegant interiors by well-known designers, but the majority merely adopted gimmicky decorative styles to help them stand out from other clubs.

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Six degrees of Wild Bunch separation

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Tomorrow, TCM puts a spotlight on Warren Oates, and as tempted as I am to write about The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) I see that fellow Morlock Greg Ferrara has covered that epic western in five different posts. So I’m taking a different tact and, instead, will take this opportunity to dust-off my copy of Alex Cox’s 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western. The idea here is to share with TCM readers excerpts from the six Spaghetti Westerns that Alex cross-referenced to The Wild Bunch. It’s also fitting to remind readers about Alex Cox in regards to westerns because, not only did he direct a few (ie: Straight to Hell and Walker), but he is about to launch a Kickstarter campaign for his next film: Tombstone Rashomon, which will present five radically different stories of the OK Corral Gunfight. [...MORE]

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August 22, 2015
David Kalat
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The Return of Arsene Lupin Returns, Returns

This is a DVR alert for the upcoming screening of the 1938 mystery thriller Arsene Lupin Returns, starring Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce and Warren Williams.  It’s a sequel to one of my all-time faves, Arsene Lupin.  I’ve raved about that gloriously brilliant 1932 Pre-Code classic several times in this blog before (and this counts as yet another rave, if you’re keeping count), generally in the context of being gobsmacked that it isn’t better known or loved.  There are so many lesser, markedly inferior films of the 1930s that garner audiences solely on the basis of technically being a “gothic horror.” The completest mindset of many horror film fans ensures that anyone who enjoys classics Dracula and Frankenstein will eventually find themselves sitting through something interminable and inexcusable like The Mask of Fu Manchu (which has the sin of being at once racist, sexist, and also boring!)  Meanwhile, Arsene Lupin rides to dizzying heights of entertainment but does so without Boris Karloff or fake cobwebs, so it gets forgotten.

(Grrr).  Anyway, stepping off my soapbox, I realize this week’s mission is a toughie.  If I find it hard to persuade people to watch the 1932 Arsene Lupin which is virtually flawless, what’s it going to take to convince them to watch its lower-budgeted 1938 Production Code-era sequel, in which none of the original cast or crew returned?

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KEYWORDS: Arsene Lupin, Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Warren William
COMMENTS: 3
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The Matryoshka Doll Performance

In the recent Best Picture winner, Birdman, Michael Keaton plays an movie actor searching for legitimacy by mounting a Broadway adaptation of the works of Raymond Carver.  During a confrontation with another actor in the play, played by Edward Norton, Keaton’s character pretends to have had a much more troubled past than he really did.  He is doing so to fool Norton and then reveal the performance to prove that he is a far better actor than Norton thought.  That he succeeds shouldn’t be a great surprise since we already know that his character is a professional actor.  However,what about a character that isn’t and is required to fool another character?  There’s a layered effect, as we the audience may not even know where the real characters end and where the fake ones begin.  Now, to be sure, I’m not talking about an actor playing multiple roles (e.g. Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets or Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove), I’m talking about the actual character in the movie attempting to portray someone else. Confused?  I thought so.  Here are three examples of what I’m talking about.  Let’s begin.

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