Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Magical Anniversary

Most, if not all, students of classical music revere the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Equally, his personality is considered repulsive by many, creating a true contradiction.

And his untimely death fueled speculation — which has never been substantiated — that he was murdered by Salieri, a jealous rival composer.

That speculation formed the basis for one of my all-time favorite films, "Amadeus."

But, even if there was no truth behind the speculation on the nature of Mozart's relationship with Salieri, it was a remarkable film, written, directed and performed by people who understood music as well as they understood their own craft — filmmaking.

That is, indeed, a rare combination in an art form that tries to relate the story of another art form.

And, at the heart of the film was always the music, Mozart's music. "It is miraculous," says Salieri at one point in the movie. And so it was.

But it could also be a burden for the admittedly "vulgar" Mozart.

Even so, it appears that composition came easily to Mozart. I can't verify the accuracy of this comment, but in the film, Mozart's character says a particular piece of work that has not yet been committed to paper is "all right here in my noodle." The rest, he says, "is just scribbling. Scribbling and bibbling, bibbling and scribbling."

It is strongly suggested in the movie that Salieri commissioned Mozart to compose the demanding "Requiem" with the intention of killing his rival and then passing off the "Requiem" as his own at Mozart's funeral — and it is also suggested that working on the ultimately unfinished composition was what really killed Mozart.

In the film, the scene of Mozart's death includes the act (by his widow) of locking up the sheet music of the "Requiem" while a disappointed Salieri watches helplessly. As he bitterly relates the experience to a priest, the aged and guilt-ridden Salieri says, "Your... merciful God. He destroyed His own beloved, rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of His glory."

But it is also suggested in the film that Mozart may have been overworking himself before being hired to write the "Requiem" — that the "Requiem" hastened what Mozart had brought on himself.

The movie shows him collapsing while conducting, as well as playing music in, "The Magic Flute," Mozart's final opera, which premiered 217 years ago today in Vienna. Less than three months after the premiere, Mozart died at the age of 35.

"The Magic Flute" was the last of several hugely popular collaborations for Mozart with Emanuel Schikaneder's theatrical troupe.

More than two centuries later, "The Magic Flute" remains a popular opera, consistently one of the most frequently performed operas in North America.

That's the kind of lasting legacy that few artists ever achieve.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Newman Played Many Roles, Never Changed as Role Model

"Sometimes God makes perfect people, and Paul Newman was one of them."

Sally Field
Newman's "Absence of Malice" co-star

Two days after his death, praise continues to pour in for actor Paul Newman.

I wrote about his death yesterday in my Freedom Writing blog.

And, while I don't have much to add to it, I do have a few random thoughts about Newman's life and work.
  • "In the decade after World War II, three soulful studs came from Broadway to Hollywood," writesTIME's Richard Corliss. Those "three soulful studs" were Marlon Brando, James Dean and Newman.

    "Of these three, way back then, Newman seemed the least unique," observes Corliss.

    "But unlike the other two, Newman stuck it out. Instead of leading his talent in weird and wayward directions, like Brando, or smashing it to pieces on a California highway at 24, like Dean, he just kept getting better, more comfortable in his movie skin, more proficient at suggesting worlds of flinty pleasure or sour disillusion with a smile or a squint."

    True, there were times when Brando went in "weird and wayward directions."

    And, also true, Dean's talent was never fully realized. He was the tragic victim of a highway accident more than half a century ago and only made three films.

    While both facts are true, it's also true that both actors left behind great celluloid performances that will be discussed by teachers and students of film for generations to come.

    Newman, on the other hand, was the model of consistency all his life. He was always Paul Newman, and, while he "grew old and gray," he did not become "fat and cranky" as other stars did in their later years. Newman "was recognizably, at any moment in his film career, Paul Newman," wrote Corliss.

    Newman and his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, marked their 50th wedding anniversary in January. Stars who remain married to the same partner for life have always been rare in Hollywood; with Newman's passing, one has to wonder if the species is now officially extinct.

    But Newman was always a strict monogamist. As a sex symbol, there were always opportunities for him to satisfy sexual appetites. But he always insisted that he never took advantage of those opportunities. "Why would I go out for a hamburger when I have steak at home?" he would say.

    (In fact, Newman always reminded me of a college professor in my hometown. Upon being told that having sex only with one's spouse was like eating rice every day, his reply was, "But there are thousands of ways to eat rice!"

    (That professor, as I understand it, also just celebrated his golden wedding anniversary. Perhaps he and Newman were soulmates ...)

  • Last night, I was watching "Paper Moon" on cable.

    It was ironic that that movie was on. Thirty-five years ago, at about the same time that Newman and Robert Redford made "The Sting," Newman and his daughter Nell were the original choices to play the father-daughter roles in "Paper Moon."

    I don't know if Newman's commitments to "The Sting" prevented him from taking the role in "Paper Moon." Maybe he just didn't want to be typecast in Depression-era movies. But, frankly, I'm glad Ryan O'Neal and his daughter Tatum got the roles instead.

    I'm sure Newman would have done his usual great job in the role, but the O'Neals have always seemed perfectly cast in that film — to me, anyway!

  • That doesn't mean that Newman wasn't perfectly cast in many other films. Entertainment Weekly takes a look back at Newman's "30 unforgettable roles."

    Reflect on the ones you've seen. And resolve to see the ones you haven't!

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Movies of 1968

1968 is remembered as a pivotal year — and justifiably so.

Mostly, I guess it is remembered for all the major news events of that year, starting with the Tet offensive in Vietnam that irreversibly turned the tide of American public opinion against the war and ending with the hopeful message relayed from Apollo 8 just above the surface of the moon at Christmas.

And, of course, all the events in between — like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

It was a big year culturally, too. The music that was playing on America’s radios included songs like "The Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding, "Hey, Jude" by the Beatles, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye and "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon and Garfunkel.

TV was continuing to expand into more and more American homes, bringing programs like "Mission: Impossible," "Adam-12," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" and "Star Trek" into people's living rooms.

And movies, as always, were a reflection of the times, as both expressions of the things people were thinking and feeling and saying as well as demonstrations of emerging writing talent and directorial creativity and innovation.

Film historian Raymond Benson with Brittanica Blogs has been counting down the top 10 movies of 1968.

More appropriately, Benson is counting down his personal favorite films from that year — one each day. Benson is not promoting his list as a list of the 10 most influential films of 1968 or the 10 most ground-breaking films of 1968 or anything like that.

That’s not intended to be dismissive of the films of 1968 — only to acknowledge that these lists really are a matter of personal preference. Some have the benefit of expert knowledge and contribution, perhaps even the weight of public opinion.

But it’s still a matter of preference. And, although I was only 8 years old through most of 1968, I’ve seen quite a few films from that year. I remember 1968, and I know I saw some of its movies that year. Of course, some of them I didn’t see until I was much older.

So I’ve been working on my own list of my favorite films of 1968. At first, I was tempted to think that this would be a breeze, but, as I’ve delved deeper into my research, I’ve realized that some of my all-time favorite films from that period were not released in 1968 at all.

When I began working on this list, I figured I could get half of my top 10 from 1968 compiled in a matter of minutes. But it turns out that some of the movies I wanted to put on my list wouldn’t qualify because they were released in other years.

"Bonnie and Clyde" came out in 1967, as did "The Graduate." "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" came out in 1969; so did "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy."

And "M*A*S*H" and "Patton" came out in 1970.

So, some of the films from my list aren’t the films I expected to include. But it’s been a good exercise for me to do this research, and I’ll be interested in seeing how my Top 10 stacks up against Benson’s when his is finished next week.

Anyway, here is my Top 10 from 1968:
  1. "2001: A Space Odyssey" remains my favorite film from 1968 — for many reasons.

    For one thing, I’ve been a fan of the work of Stanley Kubrick for a long time. One of the things I always liked about him was his refusal to be pigeon-holed in his work. "2001" was the Kubrick project that followed the brilliant "Dr. Strangelove" and the one immediately before "A Clockwork Orange."

    Those three films had virtually nothing in common — except that they were directed by the same man and each bore his distinctive touch.

    For another thing, "2001" used ground-breaking special effects to create the most realistic depictions of space that had been seen on film up to that time. Even today, I think the special effects are incredible. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that it took Kubrick more than two years to satisfactorily develop the effects.

    And the story itself was engrossing. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. When I saw it for the first time (at the age of about 10 or 11), it wasn’t in a theater or on the TV screen. It was in a special showing in an auditorium on the campus of the small liberal arts college where my father was a professor.

    It was part of a campus film series and, as I recall, my father was a member of the faculty panel that selected the films. "2001" was one of the films for which he had lobbied, and he was anxious for the whole family to see it so when it was shown on campus, he brought all of us to the auditorium, where we were treated to the film and a lively discussion of it afterwards.

  2. "The Planet of the Apes" has long been one of my favorite movies.

    Actually, I read a paperback copy of Pierre Boule’s 1963 book upon which the film was based before I saw the movie. The story was semi-satirical, and, since I read it when I was about 12 or 13, it was a little over my head. Considering that Blake Edwards (of "The Pink Panther" fame) was the original choice to direct it, I suppose the initial intention was for the movie to be a comedy.

    But the director ended up being Franklin J. Schaffner and, while the film had some undeniably funny lines (including some that probably weren’t intended to be funny originally), it was hardly a comedy or a satire.

  3. "The Producers" was a delightful movie. It introduced me to the madcap ways of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder all at once.

    And, as much as I respect the talents of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I didn’t feel that their 2005 remake was half as good as the original. The story was the same, but the treatment was different in the hands of Brooks, Wilder and Zero Mostel.

  4. In 1966, audiences were introduced to the comedy team of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in "The Fortune Cookie." In 1968, the two were partnered in one of my favorite films of the year, "The Odd Couple."

    Just about everyone in the family liked the movie. It spawned a popular TV show starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall — a show my parents loved.

    And my grandmother frequently quoted her favorite scene from the movie — in which Oscar (Matthau) and Felix (Lemmon) are arguing about whether Felix’s pasta dish is linguini or spaghetti. Oscar picks up the bowl of the pasta and throws it against the wall in the kitchen, then looks at Felix and says, "Now it’s garbage."

    And then my grandmother would giggle like a schoolgirl!

    I never fail to laugh when I watch that movie.

  5. "Oliver!" was, for me, an introduction to many things, not the least of which was the timelessness — and the possibilities — of the stories of Charles Dickens.

    The film was a movie version of a successful stage musical that was based on Dickens’ "Oliver Twist." It was one of the biggest box office hits of 1968 — and, in addition to being a major hit, the film did pretty well at the Oscars, too, winning five, including Best Picture and Best Director.

    I saw it during its theatrical run. It was hugely entertaining — and the songs from the film enjoyed remarkable popularity as well.

  6. "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" is a cult classic, one of the few films I can remember from that year that satirized the current culture and its counterculture. I saw it for the first time with my college buddies about 13 years after it was released theatrically, and I've loved it ever since.

    Peter Sellers was one of my all-time favorite comedic actors, and I've always felt he was hilarious as the uptight, square, fortysomething Jewish attorney who has a fling with a twentysomething, hash brownie-baking hippie girl.

    I especially enjoyed his performances in Blake Edwards' "Pink Panther" movies. In 1968, Sellers really was in the early portion of an 11-year break from the role of Inspector Clouseau. But he continued to collaborate with Edwards and that produced another one of my favorite films from 1968 ...

  7. "The Party" may have helped cement Sellers' reputation as a bumbling foreigner, although the accident-prone French Inspector Clouseau was nowhere to be found.

    In "The Party," Sellers played a clumsy actor from India who stumbles from one disaster to another after being mistakenly invited to a movie producer's party.

    It's one of my favorite films from 1968 because Edwards deliberately structured it to allow Sellers plenty of room to improvise. That's why, when you watch it, you'll see that many of the funniest scenes have little or no dialogue.

  8. "Once Upon A Time In The West" marked a real departure for Henry Fonda. Known mostly for his good-guy roles, Fonda played a villainous, sadistic killer in Sergio Leone's epic masterpiece — but, reportedly, Fonda hated the role so much that he refused to discuss it.

    Even so, it was a great movie. I saw it many years later, and I have no recollection of anything that was said or written about the film, but I'm sure it was controversial in its day.

    By the way, I may be pressing the issue a bit on this film. It was released to the European market in late 1968, but it wasn't released in the United States until the spring of 1969.

  9. Cliff Robertson won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in "Charly" — and deservedly so — as a mentally retarded bakery worker who agrees to participate in an experiment that involves a radical form of brain surgery (which turns out to be only temporarily successful).

    When I was in school, it was S.O.P. for teachers to assign the book upon which the movie was based, "Flowers for Algernon," for students to read.

    I saw the movie several years after it was released — shortly after reading the book. In hindsight, there are probably many elements of the story that I wouldn't have understood if I had seen it when I was 8 years old.

    It was a touching love story that took a unique approach to the subject. In many ways, it seems to me that Robertson's "Charly" was the forerunner to Tom Hanks' "Forrest Gump" — a character who was sweet, earnest and naïve.

  10. "The Lion in Winter" was the fictional story of England's King Henry II, starring Peter O'Toole, Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins.

    If you watch the movie, do not make the mistake of assuming that it is dramatizing actual events. This is not a recreation of history. But, as a work of historical fiction, it's hard to beat.

    Of the quality of the film, all that really needs to be said is that it was nominated for seven Oscars and won four of them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Film Festival

In a way, it seems that this is the perfect time to launch an entertainment-oriented blog.

Why? Because in the next couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies and the Independent Film Channel will be showing 15 of the films from the American Film Institute’s revised list of its Top 100 movies from the last century.

As well as a few movies that were on the original list but were dropped from the revised list.

American Movie Classics also will be showing a film from the list, but I have to include a personal word or two of warning about watching movies on AMC.

Unlike TCM and IFC, AMC interrupts its films with commercials — and the films are edited, so if some of the language in the original is a little too salty or some of the scenes are a little too revealing, they'll be cut from the versions that are aired on AMC and you'd be better off renting the movie.

Language and nudity aren't the only things that get cut, just the most obvious ones (clearly, the older a film is, the less likely it is to include either). There have been times when I've been watching a film on AMC, and I have realized that something has been edited for no apparent reason — except, perhaps, to make sure the film fits its allotted time slot.

(And, although I must admit that I don't watch AMC as much as I used to, my recent observations are that it does not try to replicate the theater experience by showing its films in the letterbox format.

(Older films — those that were released before 1953 — weren't made in the widescreen format, but you may want to take that caveat into consideration if you're watching a more recent film and the letterbox format is critical to your enjoyment.)

And, with that, it's on with the shows!

(Incidentally, most of these movies are being shown on TCM; thus, the showtimes refer to TCM's schedule. If the film is on IFC or AMC, I've tried to mention it. But the vast majority of these listings are on TCM.)

On Saturday, TCM will show:
  • "Bringing Up Baby" at 7 a.m. (Central). It is ranked #88 on AFI's list.

  • "The Maltese Falcon" at 5 p.m. (Central). It ranks #31.
On Sunday, you can see:
  • "The African Queen" at 3 p.m. (Central). It ranks #65.
On Monday, TCM will show a three-movie jackpot from AFI's list:
  • "In the Heat of the Night" at 8 p.m. (Central). The film ranks #75.

  • "West Side Story" at 11 p.m. (Central). The film ranks #51.

  • "The Apartment" at 1:45 a.m. (Central). The film ranks #80.

  • And AMC will show "The Bridge on the River Kwai" at 6 a.m. (Central) on Monday. It was ranked #36.
On Tuesday, TCM will show:
  • "High Noon" at 11 p.m. (Central). The film ranks #27.

  • "Psycho" at 2:30 a.m. (Central). The film ranks #14.
On Wednesday, you can see:
  • "King Kong" (the 1933 original version) at 12:15 a.m. (Central). The film ranks #41.

  • (By the way, just in case you'd like to make a comparison, AMC will be showing the 1976 remake of "King Kong" the next night at 9:30 p.m. Central — and, again, at 1:30 p.m. Central on Friday.)
On Thursday, you can see:
  • "A Night at the Opera" at 10:30 a.m. (Central). The film ranks #85.

  • "Vertigo" at 2:30 p.m. (Central). The film ranks #9.
A week from Saturday, you can see:
  • A repeat of "High Noon" at 5:30 p.m. (Central). As stated earlier, the film ranks #27.

  • "Casablanca" at 2:30 a.m. (Central). The film ranks #3 (behind "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather").
And we get another three-film jackpot a week from Tuesday night:
  • "The Graduate" at 7 p.m. (Central). The film ranks #17.

  • "Bonnie and Clyde" at 9 p.m. (Central). The film ranks #42.

  • "In the Heat of the Night" will be repeated at 11 p.m. As I mentioned earlier, it ranks #75.
It’s worth mentioning that "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" will be airing at 1 a.m. (Central) a week from Tuesday night. The film originally was ranked #99 when AFI released the list in 1998. But it dropped off the list when a revised version was released in 2007.

Even if "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" isn’t on the list anymore, it’s well worth the time to watch Spencer Tracy in his final film role.

TCM will show another film that was dropped from the original list — "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" — Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Central). (By the way, before TCM shows that film, you can see perhaps the worst film ever made, "Plan 9 From Outer Space," at 1 p.m. Central.) "Close Encounters" was originally ranked #64.

While I’m on the subject of films that were dropped from AFI’s original list when the new list was released for its 10th anniversary, IFC will be showing "Fargo" Wednesday at 8 p.m. (Central) and again at 11:45 p.m. (Central).

It was ranked #84 on the original list, but it was dropped from the revised list.

"Raging Bull" went in the other direction. It went up in the rankings from #24 to #4. IFC will show it next Sunday at 7:45 p.m. (Central) and 2 a.m. (Central).

And, as usual there are films that will be aired in the next couple of weeks that I believed should have been on the list but didn't make it.

For example, I think "The Fortune Cookie" is one of the funniest Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon films ever made, but it didn't make the list. Judge for yourself. TCM will show it Thursday at 4:45 p.m. (Central).

"Meet John Doe" was perhaps the wittiest Frank Capra film, but it wasn't on the list, either. TCM will show it on Tuesday at 8:45 p.m. (Central).

(I can't mention "Meet John Doe" without making an observation. Are you old enough to remember Ronald Reagan refusing to be cut off while trying to address a crowd during the 1980 New Hampshire primary campaign? If you are, then you need to watch this film. There's a scene in "Meet John Doe" — filmed 40 years earlier — in which Gary Cooper did the same thing Reagan did. Was life imitating art?)

And "Paper Moon" was a great film about Depression-era grifters, but it, too, failed to make the cut. TCM will show it at 7 p.m. (Central) Saturday.

IFC will be showing some films that I believe should have been on AFI's list as well.

I think "A Hard Day's Night" is a lot of fun to watch, as well as being historically important for showing The Beatles having some fun with their newfound celebrity. IFC will air it Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (Central), again at 5:30 a.m. (Central) on Sunday morning and again at 12:30 p.m. (Central) on Sunday.

On Tuesday, IFC will show "My Left Foot," a 1989 film about a cerebral palsy victim that pulls no punches, at 6:35 a.m. and noon (Central). It's tough to watch at times — but it's ultimately rewarding.