Thursday, May 12, 2016

Bringing Up Baby for Hepburn's Birthday

By Steve Evans

Bringing Up Baby (1938), our film du jour, sets the gold standard for goofy laughs sparked by effervescent leads – Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, born 109 years ago today.

The fiery Hepburn steals the show as a ditzy heiress, but more specifically portrays the kind of woman I’ve been attracted to all my life, which is to say witty, bright-eyed, fun-loving and half-crazy. Grant plays a perpetually perplexed paleontologist trying to recover a missing dinosaur bone (an "intercostal clavicle" if you must know) and instead gets caught up in misadventures with Miss Hepburn. Hijinks ensue and, yes, love can’t be far behind.

Director Howard Hawks didn’t invent the screwball comedy, but he damn-sure perfected it with this film. Peter Bogdanovich essentially remade the picture as What’s Up Doc? (1972), although Babs Streisand and Ryan O’Neal can scarcely compare to their predecessors.

Hepburn had already won her first Oscar when Bringing Up Baby was made and she’d go on to win three more. Her Academy Award-winning record still holds today. She married only once, in 1928, and slipped down to Mexico six years later to secure a quickie divorce. It’s well known that Spencer Tracy was the love of her life, though the alcoholic Tracy never divorced his wife, and he and Hepburn never lived together. For a legendary Hollywood love affair, it seems the romance was also tragic, as Hepburn described Tracy as “tortured” and she put her career on hold in the 1960s to care for him in the final five years of his life.

Fiercely independent and possessed of a wanderer’s spirit, Hepburn is widely credited as a proto-feminist before there was a word for such wonderful women. She also single-handedly popularized the wearing of pants by women in the 1930s.

Her work in Bringing Up Baby is nothing short of magical. This is unsurprising when we realize the script was written especially for her with dialog suited to her personality. Hepburn’s seemingly clueless character is such a pain in the ass it’s a testament to her charm that we love her, anyway, and root for Cary Grant to come to the same realization. Their destination may be inevitable, but the journey is absolutely hysterical. This is a great film; one of the finest comedies the cinema has given us. No babies were harmed in the making of this motion picture. Truth be told, the film features no babies in the traditional sense at all.

If life could be more like a movie, I would want to exist in this one.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dali Dreams

By Steve Evans

Today being Salvador Dali’s birthday, our film du jour might be Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog; 1929), which he co-directed with fellow Surrealist Luis Buñuel. And you should check out this silent short, widely available online. It's one of the more interesting cinematic experiments conceived by Dali, who died in 1989. But right now let’s look at Dali's contribution to Spellbound (1945), a lesser film from Alfred Hitchcock starring Gregory Peck as a mental patient who fears he’s committed a murder and Ingrid Bergman as the psychiatrist trying to help him.

The film quotes Shakespeare at the opening (The Fault... is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves...), setting the stage for an ambitious look at psychoanalysis. Instead, Spellbound soon dives into what I can only charitably describe as stagey melodrama. It’s mostly a dull film. Redemption comes in a stunning dream sequence designed by Dali, replete with his signature melting objects and hallucinatory imagery. Hitchcock always worked with the best talent money could buy, and here his work with Dali constitutes a real save, because without it Spellbound is of interest only to Hitchcock compleatists.

The famed dream sequence lasts a mere two minutes, but was rumored to have been 20 minutes long before producer David O. Selznick demanded major cuts. Selznick and Hitchcock clashed frequently throughout the production and they never worked together again, although five years earlier Hitch had delivered a Best Picture winner to Selznick with his first American film, Rebecca.

Decades later, Peck conceded in an interview that he and Bergman had enjoyed a brief, torrid affair during the filming of Spellbound. Bergman was relentlessly unfaithful to her doctor husband throughout her 13-year marriage, finally divorcing him in 1950 to take up with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who she divorced in 1957. Peck’s marriage lasted another 10 years after his dalliance with Bergman and he married a French journalist the day after his divorce was final. I mention this merry-go-round of musical beds only to underscore how life often imitates art, as the plot of Spellbound reveals, and that in this particular case the goings-on behind the camera were more interesting than the story being filmed in front of it. Except for that Dali dream sequence.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Wake up! It's time for Sleeper (1973)

By Steve Evans 

Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), our film du jour, tells a Rip Van Winkle tale of a neurotic little man (played by guess who?) put into cryogenic sleep and awakened 200 years later into an incompetently managed police state, which is sorta what we can expect if wee Donny Trump gets elected. Sleeper is straight-up slapstick, with sight gags reminiscent of the silent era. Devotees of silent film will discern bits of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton throughout Sleeper, although Woody has said he made the picture in tribute to Groucho Marx.  Woody’s character is more like Chaplin, though – a spry Everyman tangling with an impossibly obnoxious bureaucracy run by idiots. Co-stars Diane Keaton, fresh off her performance in The Godfather and in an altogether completely different role.

The humor of Sleeper would not work nearly so well without the wonderful music score, featuring Woody on clarinet performing with the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing Dixieland like they’re on fire. I miss Woody Allen being silly.

All aboard the Orgasmatron.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Vertigo premieres 58 years ago today

By Steve Evans

Vertigo, our film du jour, premiered on this date in 1958. Not my favorite Hitchcock, though widely considered his masterpiece, Vertigo falls within a genre of my own invention, "subconscious autobiography." Here is a film in which Hitch, wittingly or not, displays all of his obsessional, sadistic and controlling habits in dealing with women who he could never obtain in his own life.
Vertigo is never about what it seems. The central mystery presented in Vertigo is its own MacGuffin -- a name given to something that sets the plot in motion but really has no significance. For example, "Rosebud" is the MacGuffin in Citizen Kane, for it kick starts the plot but has no relevance to the outcome of the story. In Vertigo, a San Francisco detective afraid of heights is tasked with following a beautiful woman who may be possessed by spirits. Halfway through the film, we learn this movie is about something else entirely. Something much more terrifying.
Beautiful performances from Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, one of the greatest ice blondes the cinema has given us. In terms of pure craft, the picture is exquisitely wrought, with a score by Bernard Herrmann for which the word "haunting" was invented.

Voters in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll named Vertigo the greatest film of all time. That's debatable. What is unquestionable is Vertigo's place in the canon as the most unsettling, provocative and heartbreaking picture of Hitchcock's career. Most of his oeuvre can be viewed as a lark. Suspenseful, yes, and replete with macabre humor, but mostly elegant and frivolous fun. Not Vertigo. Oh, no. Just once in a career spanning 60 years did Hitchcock cut loose and reveal some of his serious psychological baggage. People still say Hitchcock's Psycho is a scary movie and they're right, it is, in a funhouse sort of way. But Vertigo is the real deal. It plumbs the black hollows of a disturbed man's heart and shows us there is nothing at the edge of this abyss but madness and longing and despair.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2016 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.