Thoughts on Brando, Teahouse, and the Big Screen

Teahouse_of_august_moon_(1956)Last week, I interviewed Mark Caro who created a film series in Chicago called “Is It Still Funny?” This weekend, I introduced The Teahouse of the August Moon as part of a film series at the Ringling Museum of Art on the image of Asians in Hollywood movies. It seems the opportunity to watch older films on a big screen with an audience has a powerful appeal for movie-lovers in all parts of the country. Teahouse drew a good crowd who enjoyed the film and stayed for a lively discussion afterwards

The Teahouse of the August Moon has an impressive pedigree. In 1951, Vern Sneider published the novel. John Patrick turned it into a very popular Broadway play in 1953; three years later, Patrick adapted it to the big screen for MGM. The studio had high hopes for a critical and box-office hit. Teahouse stars Marlon Brando as Japanese interpreter Sakini, who is also the movie’s onscreen narrator, speaking directly to the audience at the opening and closing of the film. He serves as interpreter for an American colonel in charge of Occupation forces in Okinawa. The Colonel orders Captain Fisby, played by an affable, slightly bumbling Glenn Ford, to oversee a small Okinawan village. The goal is to Americanize the village by indoctrinating them into the ways of modern capitalism. Sakini, who has his own agenda, accompanies Fisby to serve as interpreter–in more ways than one.

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The Whole World is Watching: Medium Cool (1969)

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“This is America quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events . . . the roots and fruit of social turmoil, and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains . . . goodbye to us. Which brings the picture full circle. The media continues.”
- Actor Robert Forster on Medium Cool from a 1969 newspaper interview

Haskell Wexler’s quasi-documentary Medium Cool (1969) airs on TCM this coming Sunday (10 PM EST / 7 PM PST) and I can’t think of a better film to watch before the start of the RNC and DNC conventions this month.

If you’ve been paying attention to the election this year, you’re well aware of the fact that both of our major political parties are in upheaval at the moment while the country is engulfed in racial and economic strife. This, along with an unremitting war on a nebulous enemy, gender disparity, unaffordable health care, inadequate education opportunities, environmental concerns, gun violence, an invasion of privacy by government as well as commercial interests and a growing distrust of our corporate run media (just to list a few of the hot-button issues propelling the debate), has concocted a Molotov cocktail of social unrest. When Haskell shot Medium Cool in the long, hot and discordant summer of 1968, a similar political climate was sweeping the country. It was an alarming and dispiriting time and many of the concerns troubling Americans 50-years ago are still with us today.

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November 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Goat-Staring for Fun and Profit

So here we are, in the middle of November, sandwiched between the release of the latest James Bond flick and the upcoming release of the new Star Wars.  The War on Terror rages on, with no end in sight.  The Coen Brothers have migrated to TV where Fargo is ripping it up.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow, all these different experiences could be smoothed together into one event?  Wouldn’t that just save so much time?

So, I present to you, The Men Who Stare At Goats.   A spy-comedy derived as a fictionalized adaptation of a controversial non-fiction book about “psychic soldiers” fighting in Iraq, with overt Star Wars in-jokes…I can’t say it’s a good movie, but it has so much else going for it, quality might be beside the point.

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KEYWORDS: Ewan MacGregor, George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats
COMMENTS: 2
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Robert Redford & Sydney Pollack: A Creative Partnership

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“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easily to him, but at least he knew it.” – from THE WAY WE WERE, scripted by Arthur Laurents

It’s easy to assume that this memorable line I borrowed from THE WAY WE WERE (1973) summarizes Robert Redford’s own life and career. After all, Redford was blessed with all-American good looks and is an incredibly likable performer with limitless charisma. But in truth, Redford’s early years were complicated and he spent more than a decade working in television and film before his iconic role in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) made him a bona fide star at age 33. After appearing in one of the top-grossing films of all time you’d expect Hollywood to embrace the sun-kissed actor without reservation but Redford had to fight incredibly hard to continue to make the kind of movies he wanted to make.

Behind many of the popular box office successes and critically acclaimed films that followed, Redford was battling studio heads, arguing with writers, waging war with producers and doing everything in his power to make meaningful films that provided him with complex and challenging roles throughout the 1970s. Today Redford’s impressive filmography during that decade is a testament to his artistic integrity at the time and illustrates his commitment to making quality pictures that entertained but also left audiences with a lot to think about. And some of the best films Redford appeared in during this period were directed by his longtime collaborator and friend, Sydney Pollack.

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Pirates 101: Intro to Hollywood Buccaneers, Privateers, and Swashbucklers

pirateblackswanAvast, ye buckos and scallywags! Prepare to pillage and plunder with pirates and privateers as TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight offers 21 pirate pictures during the month of June.  One summer long ago, I read Treasure Island and saw The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner in the same month, which left me with a life-long obsession with pirates, exotic tropical locales, and buried treasure. As fate would have it, I suffer horribly from seasickness, which makes me a landlubber and prevents me from joining one of those crews that search for buried treasure and sunken pirate ships around Key West. Instead, I content myself with watching celluloid pirates and ruminating over the reasons for their periodic popularity in popular culture.

I have collected articles and notes on pirate stories and movies with a vague notion of writing a book or teaching the pirate subgenre in class. TCM’s “Pirate Pictures” fest on Friday nights has given me an opportunity to try out my ideas on TCM viewers and blog readers in a three-part series that I am christening Pirates 101. I promise to keep the pirate lingo to a minimum, though that will be a challenge for me.

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LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

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]

Desecration

“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.”
― Stephen King, Pet Sematary

I have lived in Colorado most of my life. My home is a half-hour drive from the Century 16 theater in Aurora where so many people were recently murdered and maimed while watching a movie. Like most other non-psychopathic people, I felt immediate sadness, anguish, grief, and a myriad of other emotions as I read the unfolding news. In yesterday’s post by fellow Morlock, David Kalat, he says “I’ve lived most of my life in movie theaters,” and I feel the exact same way. I not only inhabit the film theater as a spectator, but as a film exhibitor and programmer I am also responsible for selecting the films that get shown in several venues. The films of Christopher Nolan that I’ve programmed are: Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception (which, despite being a blockbuster, had enough intellectual cachet for the arthouse crowd). I stayed away from the Batman films, those being out of my bailiwick. However, I was very impressed with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, in part because I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, a genre which is always, and predictably, rounded up and put up against the wall as one of the usual suspects when searching for scapegoats. Allow me to state the obvious: regardless of genre, movies can be joyous affairs that bring people together to share in the full range of emotions available to us. No matter how bleak their subject might be, they are ultimately collective acts of creation. What happened in Aurora is a senseless destruction and desecration of life, and my heart goes out to the victims and survivors. It was also a desecration of one of my favorite temples (the movie theater), and a desecration of one of my favorite art-forms (movies themselves). [...MORE]

Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!

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A Tribute to Theo Angelopoulos

Acclaimed Greek fimmaker Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos died last month. He was killed January 24th when he was hit by a motorcycle a few blocks from where he had been shooting his latest film, The Other Sea (L’altro mare, 2012) – it was to be the final installment of a trilogy on immigration. Suranjan Ganguly, a colleague of mine at the Film Studies Program here at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently organized a private screening of one of Angelopoulos’ films titled The Suspended Step of the Stork (To meteoro vima tou pelargou, 1991). In memory of Angelopoulos and his work, Ganguly kindly agreed to answer some questions about the Greek filmmaker. [...MORE]

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