directed by Alex Stapleton
A great documentary about Roger Corman whose low-budget productions in the 1960s/70s basically acted as film-school and film-experience for a generation of filmmakers who now run Hollywood. The stories are legendary, but here in this recent documentary, we get it all in one place. Interviews with Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, William Shatner, Jack Nicholson (who has one heart-stopping moment when he breaks down during his interview), Pam Grier, Ron Howard, and many many others. Peter Fonda. Bruce Dern. These people all went through the Corman School of Film-making. In many cases, it was their first shot at helming a picture. He would hand productions over to first-time directors, whose only job was to not go over budget, and film the whole damn thing in 7 days or whatever. Roger Corman is still with us, and is a fascinating guy, a true anti-establishment type. You get the sense that the way to get something done is to tell Roger Corman it can’t be done. We don’t have anything like this nowadays. Perhaps directing television episodics, but it’s not the same thing. The fondness people have for Corman is profound. He helped create modern Hollywood.
Imitation of Life
directed by Douglas Sirk
The 1959 remake of a Claudette Colbert film from 1934, Imitation of Life is a masterpiece. A giant schlocky complex glorious melodramatic masterpiece. Filled with irony and subtext (“Mama, stop ACTING,” sneers Sandra Dee, as Lana Turner’s feisty daughter), it tells the story of two single women, one white and one black, who live together with their daughters for decades. Annie (the great Juanita Moore, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role) meets Lora Meredith on the beach at Coney Island. They bond. Their daughters are the same age. Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane is so light-skinned that she can “pass” as white, which is the real thrust of the film, its revelatory and pioneering topic. Sarah Jane does not want to be black, she wants to be white. She shuns her mother, which at first is, yes, painful, but you forgive a lot when someone is a child. As she grows older, though, and turns into a young woman (Susan Kohner, who gives a searing performance of such pain and desperation that her final scene always – always – makes me sob) her dismissal of her mother turns into a betrayal and rejection that has long-lasting consequences. This is challenging stuff, and very risky. Lana Turner’s role, as Lora Meredith, is an absolutely fascinating psychological portrayal of an ambitious woman who wants to be an actress, although she is a bit long in the tooth to be starting out in her career, a point made to her repeatedly. But she is ruthless, and she does get what she wants. She sacrifices quite a bit, though: her daughter is used to her mother not being there for her, and the love she finds with a kind-hearted guy who is normal and not part of the glitterati, cannot compete with her desire for fame. Every time she tries to step away from the limelight, another opportunity comes down the pike. Lana Turner is brilliant in the role. The year before had been the huge scandal of her life (a life filled with milder forms of scandal): her daughter Cheryl stabbed her lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, and killed him. Cheryl was acquitted, but it was a tabloid frenzy and Lana wondered if her career was over. Imitation of Life was made to be a blockbuster, and created to solidify Lana’s place in the business. It is a reminder: She is one of our greatest movie stars, scandal or no. But what is so fascinating is that the film is all about the mother-daughter relationship, both with Annie and Sarah Jane, and with Lora and her own daughter. Douglas Sirk, knowing full well that the audience would come to the picture with all of the previous year’s scandal fresh in their minds, didn’t ignore it, or wish it away, but dealt with it in serious and pointed ways. He is commenting on Lana Turner’s real life, all in the context of this fictional story. Lana Turner is quite brave in the role (which shouldn’t be a shock, if you know her career), and presents a ruthless career-driven woman, desperate, with gleaming eyes, and a rough edge to her voice when she speaks about how she wants to go “up … up … UP”. Douglas Sirk is a master. The film has so many elements it is a bit of a miracle that it keeps all its balls in the air. Susan Kohner basically takes over the film in its final sections. She is tragic, heartbreaking, and in her you see the legacy of slavery, of racism, and her self-hatred, which her mother tried again and again to warn her against. But it’s 1959. She doesn’t want to go to a secretarial school for “colored girls”. She wants to have all of the opportunities that white people have, and she COULD, if only nobody ever found out she was half-black. Troy Donahue, teen boy wonder, has a vicious scene as her white boyfriend who discovers she is half-black and beats her in an alley. This is powerful stuff. Superb acting. One side note: in 8 Mile, there is a scene when Eminem walks into the trailer home he shares with his trashy mother (Kim Basinger). She is painting her toenails and being grumpy. He doesn’t want to deal with it. She has no boundaries. On the small black-and-white television is playing Imitation of Life, the famous scene when Annie goes to the all-white school to drop off the umbrella for her daughter, and basically blows the daughter’s cover. Painful scene. An interesting choice by Curtis Hanson, in the story he is telling, about a white boy entering the all-black world of hip hop and rap, not to mention the tormented relationship he has with his mother (which is the real dark underbelly of the picture).
directed by Elia Kazan
Kazan’s story of the illiterate revolutionary who threw out the elite powers in Mexico, after a protracted land war. Zapata here is played, of course, by Marlon Brando, with a thin moustache, and a strange casual delivery that always makes him the most riveting person on screen. You can’t help but look in the background to see what he is doing. It’s always interesting. Anthony Quinn, who was a professional rival of Brando (he played Stanley in the touring company of Streetcar) does his best to act Brando off the screen by being loud. Sorry, Tony. It’s a common mistake, but Brando is your better. It sucks, I know, but that’s the breaks. Of course the roles are different – Anthony Quinn plays Zapata’s hot-headed brother, who eventually is thrown off of his own land for stealing other people’s wives and basically behaving like an idiot. So yes, the parts are different, but if Brando had played that part and not Zapata, he would still have been the most riveting thing onscreen. Brando is just one of those actors who makes other actors seem thin and conventional. Jean Peters, as Zapata’s wife, is strangely effective, and my favorite scene in the film is when he confesses to her that he can’t read (on their wedding night), and she goes to get her Bible to start the process of teaching him. It’s lit gorgeously, night-time, the bed gigantic and symbolic of the passionate love-making that just occurred there – she’s in a nightgown, he is bare-chested, and he is heartbreakingly vulnerable and ashamed about this failing. He doesn’t even have to do anything and he brings me to tears. Kazan, of course, is amazing, and they filmed it out in the desert (not in Mexico: that ended up not working out), and the locations are all real, dusty, and you can smell the sweat in the air. He was always so excellent with realistic atmospheres. It’s a story of how power corrupts, and that one Communist dude (played by Joseph Wiseman) who oversees the entire revolution, basically playing puppet master with these poor peasants who are seen as disposable the second they stray from the party line, is despicable. You can feel Kazan’s hatred for such manipulation (which went way back for him, to his days at the Group Theatre, when the local Communist Party wanted the Group to be a mouthpiece for their agitprop) in the performance. But this is Brando’s show all the way.
The Skin I Live In
directed by Pedro Almodóvar
I find this film so disturbing, and so interesting. Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a famous plastic surgeon, who is so tormented by the death of his wife that he falls off the rails. He holes himself up in his fortress of a mansion, and works on a type of synthetic skin that is impervious to pain, to burning, to being destroyed. Horrifyingly, he has a woman imprisoned in a room in his mansion, and he experiments on her. She lies around, doing yoga, reading books, writing on the walls, and occasionally he will come and visit her, to give her opium, or to experiment on her. He will burn her with a blow torch, to see if it hurts, etc. He has state-of-the-art equipment at his disposal, as well as a couple of devoted assistants. Throughout the film, we learn the backstory, which is typically Almodóvar-ian: it’s a soap opera to the nth degree, with intersecting paths, and horror stories upon horror stories, and when we learn who the woman is who is held prisoner (she is played, gorgeously, breathtakingly by Elena Ayana) … well, I wonder if some people can’t continue watching the film after that revelation. It’s tough to take. It’s extremely upsetting. It’s gross. But it’s FASCINATING. Almodóvar is one of the best feminist film-makers working today. He really thinks about women, he loves women, and – to be blunt – he sees the problem. He goes at the problem. He is inventive about the problem. This has been his obsession from the start of his career. His films are filled with fantastic hilarious performances by women of all shapes, sizes, ages … they are sometimes monstrous, sometimes trapped by circumstances, but never victims. They sometimes behave violently, but wouldn’t you, if you were trapped? Gnawing off your own leg is par for the course in the animal world. Almodóvar is brave enough to suggest that women are often in the same predicament. Here, he examines what it means to inhabit the body of a woman, a body that is never finished, a body that is reconstructed from scratch by the mad-scientist doctor. Banderas is fantastic. It’s a grisly film, tough to take, but well worth it.
directed by Vincente Minnelli
I’ve seen this a couple of times and I really like it. Katharine Hepburn plays the daughter of a scientist, and she is a burgeoning scientist herself. Yes, she might just help out in the lab, but she is an essential part of her father’s work. Of course, the housekeeper and her father are worried that she’ll never find a mate (I bet Hepburn got tired of playing such roles: everyone was always so concerned that she would never get married, if she didn’t, you know, change her entire personality.) Hepburn pooh-poohs their concerns, spurns a guy who keeps stopping by, but then she is blown away by a visiting scientist from Washington, D.C., who is interested in her father’s work. He is played by Robert Taylor, whose widow’s peak is incredible pronounced here. He is dashing, good-looking, intelligent, and sweeps her off her feet. You get the sense that maybe she loves him because he so clearly loves her father. Whatever the case may be, they marry and she moves to Washington with him, where she is immediately confronted by snobbery about her clothes, and the growing uneasy sense that her husband has some kind of a weird dark past. Secrets whisper at her, everyone seems to know more about him than she does. But she is a woman in love, and therefore a moron. She allows him to dress her, so that she will look like every other Washington hostess. She keeps stepping over land mines which explode in her face (metaphorically). Her husband has a brother who is NOT. TO BE. MENTIONED. But why? she wonders. Why?? She does her own little investigation, thinking that she is being a caring wife, when actually her husband sees her as a threat. It’s quite disturbing. This mythical brother is played by Robert Mitchum, who strolls onscreen, and very nearly walks away with the movie in the few scenes that he has. He’s Sex on a Stick, frankly, but the best thing about it is that he doesn’t TRY to be. Meanwhile, the poor little Hepburn wife finds herself sneaking around, asking questions, and being yelled at by her husband, who seriously thought that the tomboy in flared pants he married would ever fit in as a snooty upscale Washington wife? Or … is there more going on here than meets the eye? Of course there is. Gorgeously shot by Vincente Minnelli, which I realize is unnecessary to say. Every shot is a work of art.