When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda

 Devin McKinney has written a biography of uncommon urgency and feeling, about a man not prone to either.  Henry Fonda’s performances and, the book suggests, his private life, were built on varieties of withholding. Fonda’s greatest performances are models of underplaying, using his middle-Western sincerity to mask the losses that fissured his characters, manifesting only as haunted stares.   McKinney’s The Man Who Saw A Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda traces the tragedies in turn that marked Fonda’s personal life, those which lined his face and lie hidden behind his icy blue eyes. McKinney draws broad conclusions from these traumas, finding constant echoes in Fonda’s screen roles, an occasionally problematic approach that tends to reduce collaborative film efforts to manifestations of Fonda’s personality. But McKinney is a seductive and patient writer, and whenever he focuses on the physical details of a Fonda performance, his various postures and gaits, it is a revelation of the actor’s craft, how Fonda positioned himself most often to disappear, whether by shading his face or turning his back. McKinney exalts him for this reserve and modesty, a reticence and chastened demeanor the author will trace back to the ghosts that populate Fonda’s past and present, the human wreckage he has left behind in his fabulously successful life. Of all the iconic Hollywood screen presences, McKinney argues, Fonda stands apart, a symbol not of American exceptionalism but of hesitation and regret for the country that could have been.

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Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

How about a “big screen” tennis biography?

It was over 5 years ago that I wrote on these pages about my other passion and its relation to this one, and referred to an ‘essay’ that I’d written on the topic for my site. (The article is really just a compilation of movies that contain at least one scene – or even a glimpse – of my favorite sport “in action”). Since then, I’ve added dozens of additional “tennis-related” films – some foreign but mostly domestic – the most recent being the seventieth title added to the list: last year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist (2011), which has a brief scene featuring Bérénice Bejo on a tennis court, coming to the net to shake hands after a mixed doubles match.
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Summer Reading

Above: Actress Merle Oberon enjoying a book while lounging around the pool

I do a lot of reading all year long but during the summer months I tend to set aside some extra time to catch up with the books that have accumulated on my shelves. This is partially due to a habit I developed as a child. While other kids were outside playing and enjoying the bright sunshine I could often be found in my bedroom pouring over a good book. Even when my family would go on vacation I would always stick a book in my suitcase or duffel bag. For better or worse, many of my fondest childhood memories involve books that I read during the sweltering summer months while on camping trips and during long plane flights to visit grandparents. This summer I’ve started habitually reading some interesting non-fiction film related books so I thought I’d share some recent discoveries.

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Seriously?

It’s been a little over a year since I debuted here, and in that time I’ve stirred up a handful of firestorms–but weirdly, not the ones I expected.  I posted a clip of Buster Keaton as a sympathetic Nazi general, and nobody chirped a word of protest.  I ran a whole blog about blackface comedians, and the comments thread it initiated was reasoned, intelligent and low-key.  I facetioustly pretended that The Thing was a Christmas movie, defended Popeye, and praised Charlie Chaplin imitators.

But the one time I provoked serious anger and acrimony was the time I suggested that William Haines–William Haines!–wasn’t all that funny (I got called “hateful” for that one!)

When I wrote last week’s post about the Muppets, I figured I was running a risk.  Critics say nice things about heavily hyped contemporary movies at their own peril.  But my positive thoughts on the new Muppets wasn’t what kicked up dust–heavens, no.  The vitriol came out in my offhanded reference to Orson Welles having appeared in the 1979 Muppet MovieSomehow, this prompted the comments thread to start to tear into F for Fake. (how?)

To be fair, it was just one lone voice, wailing into the ether about how much he hated the Muppets, and F for Fake.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a put-on, somebody simply trying to bait me.  But I’m not above being baited.  I won’t stand by and let anybody talk smack about F for Fake, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time.  Consider the battle joined.

Let's get in on!

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Lance Henriksen: Not Bad for a Human

You know this gaunt growler. He lurks in the disreputable direct-to-video section of your local video store, if it still exists, or pops up on Netflix in a low-budget creeper rated with one reluctant star. He is, of course, Lance Henriksen, a tireless worker and a real character of a character actor. In his wild, circuitous life he’s compiled a trunk-full of  anecdotes and chastened life lessons. With the help of co-writer Joseph Maddrey, he packed all of them into his autobiography, Not Bad For A Human. It lays bare his poverty-stricken youth and job-hustling acting career with a disarming lack of vanity and a rhythmic sense of cursing.

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