Seen Recently: Corman’s World (2011), Imitation of Life (1959), Viva Zapata! (1952), The Skin I Live In (2011), Undercurrent (1946)

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Corman’s World
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.

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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).

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Viva Zapata
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.

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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.

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Undercurrent
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.

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17 Responses to Seen Recently: Corman’s World (2011), Imitation of Life (1959), Viva Zapata! (1952), The Skin I Live In (2011), Undercurrent (1946)

  1. Kent says:

    These are all movies I love by people I have been fascinated with for decades. HAPPY VIEWING, Sheila… and terrific analysis/overview on your part, as always.

    As time wears on, Kazan seems to have become something of an epic Greek tragedy in retrospect. I’m sure he was nothing like that in his life as he lived it. Even considering his disastrous moves creatively, professionally and personally his contemporaries speak and write of him as full blooded and engaged to the end. Time has kept controversy alive around his name. His own confessional writing was bloody, including the blood on his own hands. It intrigues me that Kazan detailed fully his casual affairs with Marilyn Monroe while she was dating his best friend at the time, Arthur Miller. Miller in his own autobiography skips over their sexual trinity, could he have possibly been unaware? The documentary “None Without Sin” deals directly with Kazan, Miller and Monroe in the context of the 1950s Huac hearings. What mysterious and magnificent lives they led.

    The talents of each of these directors Sirk, Kazan, Minnelli, Almodovar are so deep, and dark that their concoctions at their best taste like a drink from a smoking beaker of irresistible delicious otherworldly alchemy.

    • sheila says:

      Kazan is one of the most fascinating guys of the 20th century – his life intersected with so many other greats, his directing style was so influential (in theatre and film), and then of course there was the political upheaval. Not to mention the immigrant experience. It all seems rather improbable – to quote Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby – how can so much happen to just one person??

      I did After the Fall for my Master’s thesis in grad school – I played Maggie (the “Marilyn” part) – so yes, Timebends is well-trod ground. And FASCINATING on Kazan. Tennessee Williams is one of the only people who stood by him. He didn’t give a shit. :)

      But yes, when you read Kazan’s memoir – it seems that there is no other way it all could have happened except that way.

      His work is so interesting – especially this period, when the HUAC hearings were in full force and everything was falling apart. He clearly was attracted to the lone heroic figure up against the stifling bureaucracy of ideology – a projection of himself onto the action of the film. But then, most of the great directors did that. Most of the great writers do that – create powerful alter egos who can speak FOR them. Like Blanche, with T. Williams.

      And for all its politics – which I find quite naive – when Zapata works it works in the quiet moments. The wedding night scene, Brando’s performance which is always subtle and deeply felt, and of course that famous last scene.

      Thanks for commenting, Kent – I had just seen Imitation of Life again when I “assigned” you the great Lana!

      • sheila says:

        // smoking beaker of irresistible delicious otherworldly alchemy //

        Fantastic! Yes!

        And some of our best directors for women!

        • Kent says:

          Thank you for Lana! It is always fun to consider when and why she works and what’s wrong when she doesn’t. She usually had Lillian Burns preparing her down to the last nose wrinkle, so I think it took very strong and creative directors to move her past the stock line readings and business that was beaten into her in the talent department.
          Each of these directors clearly have a deep understanding of women, yet they are all far from a “Woman’s Director”, meaning that the men pale onscreen next to the diva plumage. Sirk got more out of Rock Hudson and even John Gavin than anyone else could. Of course, Kazan had Brando, Clift and even DeNiro doing brilliant work. Minnelli worked with Mitchum twice and Kirk Douglas three times, getting peak work out of them as well as Astaire. Almodovar, perhaps the most macho of all, gave the world the ultimate swaggering badass latin lover when he launched Antonio Banderas!

          But it is the crash and burn of “After The Fall” at Lincoln Center, taking Kazan’s program down with it, that rises to the level of historic tragedy. Perhaps it was the revenge of ghost Marilyn as the roots go directly back to the production of “The Misfits”. Perhaps even further, as far back as the early attempts of Miller and Kazan to collaborate in Hollywood on the beginnings of “On The Waterfront” while they both became entranced with the same young blonde starlet who was just beginning to be noticed in film.

          • sheila says:

            Yeah. After the Fall, and the Lincoln Center situation, was a tragedy, a truly American tragedy.

            Of course neither Miller nor Kazan are “reliable narrators”. Both are liars and dissemblers, when it comes to their own lives. That’s what makes them so interesting. They put the Truth into their art, but even there they are defending themselves. It makes for great tension and drama.

            I have great affection for After the Fall – one of the best things I’ve ever done, something I was obsessed on for years. I had so much fun playing Maggie.

          • sheila says:

            // Each of these directors clearly have a deep understanding of women, yet they are all far from a “Woman’s Director”, meaning that the men pale onscreen next to the diva plumage. Sirk got more out of Rock Hudson and even John Gavin than anyone else could. Of course, Kazan had Brando, Clift and even DeNiro doing brilliant work. Minnelli worked with Mitchum twice and Kirk Douglas three times, getting peak work out of them as well as Astaire. Almodovar, perhaps the most macho of all, gave the world the ultimate swaggering badass latin lover when he launched Antonio Banderas! //

            Wonderful point. So true! I love how Sirk uses Troy Donahue in that one horrifying scene in Imitation of Life – it would be like putting Justin Bieber in something and have him be a vicious villain. A great commentary on the “roles” we play in life, and how so often the surface hides a universe of sins. Troy Donahue, blonde, perfect, desired, is the ultimate catch for the young half-black girl … and yet he’s a violent bigot. Really disorienting and smart. He’s terrific in his one scene – and that’s brave work for him, don’t you think? In terms of his “image” as a teen idol.

  2. Great movies! Defenetly going to watch them!

  3. Kent says:

    Just watched Scorsese’s “Letter to Elia” and re-watched Zapata this morning, thanks to you Sheila! Yes, the unreliable narrator… a nice way to say full of shit! Or untrustworthy. I have some ridiculous compulsion to try and figure out where the truth is in all of it, only to end up feeling more sorry for Marilyn Monroe than I already do. Imagine being caught between one overpowering creative genius who puts out a constant and enormous line of unreliable narration, and another towering genius who has the stoic presence of Abraham Lincoln and is the most withholding tight ass in the history of show business.
    Miller is so nasty in Timebends about Monroe’s light comedies, and he so openly set himself up to be her “true” dramatic guru among the herd of false gurus surrounding her, that it is no wonder she banished him so forcefully. The tension would drive anyone into the gun laden arms of Sam Giancana! After The Fall being the result of a decade of extravagant success and madness, two of Marilyn’s most creative lovers reunite as friends to bring it to the public in the highest theatrical setting and it bombs. Fallen into ashes and finger pointing, the enterprise produces three more mountain ranges of unreliable narration that nearly rivals Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, or perhaps it is all the same conspiracy theory. Wish I could have seen you as Maggie. I actually like the play very much, it is very good… once you let go of all the facts behind it, and the rolling cloud of anger, betrayal and dust that swirls around it.

    • sheila says:

      I know, it’s so fascinating! And awful. Both were rapacious in their own way. I forgive a lot if the art is good, of course – but when you read their memoirs you think: Sheesh. (Also there is the little fact that Miller had a son with Down’s Syndrome whom he completely rejected. So much for the “champion of the people”. I am not dismissing Miller’s plays – he was a great playwright – but I think his rival, Tennessee Williams, was the better. More of a humanist. Not didactic in the way Miller had a tendency towards.)

      You are so right about Miller having a savior complex about MM – HE would be the one to show her dramatic genius!! People never seem to understand how truly difficult comedy is – how that’s where real genius lies. Anyone can learn to cry on cue, but make an entire audience roar with laughter? Just TRY to do that if you don’t have the knack for it.

      And of course Elia’s wife Barbara Loden played Maggie in the Lincoln Center production – so the psychological weirdness just keeps swirling and swirling.

      • sheila says:

        And yeah, After the Fall is very problematic. Quentin is so clearly a stand-in for Miller, and he is just filled with justifications and intellectualizations of why he could not save this woman.

        But there are a couple of KICK ASS scenes – we did two of them for my thesis: the one where they first meet in the park, and then later, when she has become a big star and she calls him in the middle of the night because she is afraid of the dark. These are masterful scenes. I’m surprised it’s not done more often. Although I imagine the ghost of MM haunts each production.

        It was done here about 10 years ago – with Carla Gugino and Peter Krause – and I couldn’t bear to see it. I am too close to the play. I have no distance.

    • sheila says:

      // Imagine being caught between one overpowering creative genius who puts out a constant and enormous line of unreliable narration, and another towering genius who has the stoic presence of Abraham Lincoln and is the most withholding tight ass in the history of show business. //

      Hahahaha. I know!!

      Nobody could just LET HER BE.

  4. Kent says:

    Yes, she was treated as a commodity and she knew how to manipulate within those boundaries and only drew more of it, even from, or especially from, the “sensitive creative thinkers”. Very very sad. And lonely. In a general way, also hard to believe, or accept. As you say, the great humanitarian was not very human. Plus, there is the strange but true reality that these geniuses were too immature to face… very often the most beautiful girl at the ball is the loneliest and can’t get a date. I love the part in Kim’s Playboy piece where she wishes that Marilyn had just lived a little longer into the 1960s and met up with Bob Dylan and lived in a time of more acceptance. Miller mocks her in Timebends for swimming naked in “Something’s Got To Give” when it was a glorious freeing moment, open, naked and cover worthy. Hopeful.

    • sheila says:

      Yes – Miller’s prudish tut-tutting over the nude scene was such a turnoff. She was timeless. She loved being loved. It was playful, funny, beautiful.

      And yes, you can imagine that the late 60s, early 70s, would have been very very good for her.

      As the 80s and 90s would have been very very good to The Big E, had he stuck around.

      Old forms and conventions breaking apart – these timeless pioneers like MM and EP would have fit in in any era.

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