God Help Me, I’ve Discovered the Prisma App

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I can’t stop. I don’t have time for this.

Posted in Art/Photography, Personal | 9 Comments

Interview with Alice Winocour, director of Disorder

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Diane Kruger, Matthias Schoenaerts, “Disorder,” opening today

My review of Disorder, starring Matthias Schoenaerts as Vincent, a PTSD-traumatized soldier home from Afghanistan, and Diane Kruger, wife of a shady businessman Vincent is hired to guard, goes up today on Rogerebert.com. It’s great. Loved/drank up every second. Alice Winocour is a bit of a phenom. Last year, she co-wrote the extraordinary Mustang (thoughts here), about 5 Turkish sisters, who are all imprisoned in their home – literally – the second they hit puberty. Now comes Disorder, a sexy genre film, a thriller. Go, Winocour. For all the complaining about women not directing blockbusters – I mean, I get it, if a woman WANTS to go that route, then I hope things change enough that she gets that opportunity – but in my opinion the value system that creates that kind of complaining is all fucked up. It’s such an absorption of capitalist obsession with monetary success. I want women to have the same opportunities as men. But to assume that directing a blockbuster, a comic book movie, a superhero movie, is the MEASURE of success is PART of the problem in the film industry today. It actually makes me sick. I don’t want women to be blocked because of their sex for any kind of project they want to do. But I would prefer women to make their OWN films, to join the ranks of auteurs who write/direct projects they feel passionately about. Who tell their stories from their own perspectives. I want more films like Meadowland (my Tribeca review here, and my interview with director AND cinematographer Reed Morano here). And Dog Fight (Matt Zoller Seitz and I discuss Dogfight here). And Outrage (thoughts here). And Fish Tank. And Selma. And By the Sea (I think I covered my feelings about that film here and here.) And Jeanne Dielman (although, let’s admit that that film – and Chantal Akerman – is one of a kind). We don’t need more comic book movies. We need more movies about the full spectrum of human experience. Lecture over.

So Winocour is actually doing it. From Mustangs to Disorder? She’s AMAZING.

As I said, my review will go up today. The film opens today in New York, with a wider nationwide release to follow. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and I am going to see it again tomorrow. The final moment. My God, the final moment!

In the meantime, here is an interview with Winocour over on Rogerebert.com, that gives a good glimpse of Winocour’s smarts and interests, her talent and sensitivity, what kinds of stories she is interested in. (Some mild spoiler-ish comments about certain scenes. So know that going in.)

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Winocour says, of the film:

For this one, I was thinking about dark romanticism as well because it is a kind of dark love story. I can say that what is similar is that Vincent is a kind of male hysteric. What is really my fascination is what happens when there are no words to express your desire or your pain or your trauma and it is the body that is talking. You have this body that it screaming. I think I am fascinated by traumatized bodies.

A “male hysteric.” I like it.

Here’s the full interview:

Traumatized Bodies: Alice Winocour on Disorder.

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Great Movie Posters

A meme has been going around Facebook to post your favorite movie poster of “a great film.” It’s been a lot of fun to see all the different artwork posted by people. Figured I’d share some of them. First, I shared my favorite and then in the comments I shared the many other candidates.

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The one below is hanging over my bed. It is also my Twitter avatar. What does it mean. I’ll tell you what, Twitter feminist who emailed me scolding me for it: what it does NOT mean is an “endorsement” of violence against women. Lighten up.

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And then, many friends began adding their own favorites to the comments, including some marvelous Polish posters (and if you don’t know about the phenomenon of Polish movie posters, just Google it, fall into the inevitable Rabbit Hole of Awesome, and thank me later.)

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The one above caused much hilarity in the comments. This is an example of a Polish movie poster. It is the poster of The Muppet Movie.

Here is the comments thread for this particular piece of genius:

Tracey
Holy God.
Sheila O’Malley
Lol
Tracey
Children screaming. Adults sobbing. This is all I hear.
Sheila O’Malley
His eyes are dead and psychopathic. Dying
John
I roll with laughter imagining the reactions to this on opening weekend. Exactly. Doesn’t quite say; “Bring the whole family!”
Tracey
Hahahahaha.
Tracey
And his smile is trying to hide the fact that his eyes are dead and psychopathic. Like, “I know everyone can read my thoughts. Better smile!”
John
yeah, if your kid looks at this and gets all warm and fuzzy inside….see Polish Rosemary’s Baby poster.
Sheila O’Malley
Tracey – ha! This is Animal’s true essence
Tracey
HA!

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For Rogerebert.com: On Joan Crawford and Sudden Fear

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Joan Crawford got her third (and final) Oscar nomination for her performance in 1952’s Sudden Fear, a film I’ve wrote about ad nauseum, here and elsewhere. The film has been restored and is starting a short theatrical run at the Film Forum here in New York.

The noir elements have been discussed to death (and they are magnificent) that I decided to focus only on Crawford’s brilliant performance for my piece on the film on Rogerebert.com:

World-Class Acting: On Joan Crawford and Sudden Fear.

Posted in Actors, Movies | Tagged | 1 Comment

Riotous Excursions: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

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I contributed a piece to Bright Wall Dark Room’s August “Literary Adaptations” issue, and I wrote on a film I’ve been wanting to write about – and celebrate – for a long time (or, ever since it came out): Baz Luhrmann’s magnificent The Great Gatsby. I write about how the film adaptation hews close to Fitzgerald’s text (as did the underwater-tepid 1974 version), but more importantly: it understands the mood of Fitzgerald’s book. And the mood is the most important thing.

You can read the piece here:

Riotous Excursions: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

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Review: Bullhead (2011)

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Jacky is huge. A hulk of a man. Back muscles and shoulder muscles ripple and bulge as he shadow-boxes ferociously in the bathroom with sickly underwater-sea-green light, a room that is his private domain. Sometimes he climbs into the tub, curled up in a fetal position as the water pours in around his powerful body. Then, he goes to the little fridge against the wall, opens it up, takes out myriad small glass bottles, fills up a syringe with liquid, and plunges the needle into his ass cheek, his bicep, his hip.

Jacky lives and works on his family’s cattle farm in the Flemish area of Belgium. He grew up there. The first scene of Bullhead shows Jacky accosting another cattle farmer, threatening him with what will happen if he doesn’t trade exclusively with Jacky’s family. Jacky is so huge, his demeanor so menacing, that people recoil from him even before he does anything. It’s not just his body that is so intimidating. It’s the look on his face. A look of barely-managed rage. Whatever may have been his normal face once upon a time (and as the film goes on, you can see it there, more and more) has vanished. He keeps his head down, his eyes forward. Like an animal about to charge. When he walks, he emanates misery and repressed violence. He’s volatile. He’s drenched in testosterone and steroids.

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Bullhead, written and directed by Michaël R. Roskam, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and is based on a true story of a Belgian veterinarian who was murdered for continuing to check for hormones and illegal substances in the cattle he examined, despite being warned off by the “hormone mafia”. I had no idea there was such a thing as a hormone mafia, but of course, it makes total sense. Similar to doping in sports, doping animals to fatten them up is big big business, and there’s got to be a huge and international black market trading in such substances, substances that are undetectable in testing, and all the rest. That’s the complex world of Bullhead, and maybe it’s too complex, especially considering the fact that Jacky (played by powerhouse actor Matthias Schoenaerts) – and his psychological torment – takes over the film every time he walks onscreen. The study of this man, his ‘roid rage, his tortured psyche, his horrific past, his loneliness, his inability to speak about any of it, is the reason to see the film. It is not easy watching. At certain points, I yearned for it to be over. I yearned for him to be put out of his misery. Like a horse with a broken leg. Only one thing to do.

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Surrounding Jacky are various dark forces, some of which he can sense, some of which he cannot. He knows something wonky is going on, but he can’t put his finger on it. There’s an ongoing police investigation into the murder of a cop who was tracking down the “hormone mafia.” The police have an informant on the inside, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), who also – totally coincidentally – knew Jacky when they were kids, and was a witness to the traumatizing event (understatement. The event, shown in flashback, is, quite literally, unwatchable) that ruined Jacky’s life. Bullhead is crammed full of shady cattle dealers, sketchy hormone pushers selling their products in empty warehouses, impatient police officers. There are two hapless car mechanics put in charge of getting rid of a BMW (used as the getaway car in the murder) who completely screw it up. It’s all skillfully done, the film moody and bleak, with a color palette of greens and greys, as well as the tensions between the Flemish, the Belgians, the French-speakers, the Walloons, class issues, linguistic divides and borderlines that cannot be crossed culturally.

The thriller aspects of Bullhead are effective as well as interesting: it’s a whole sub-culture underworld never seen in film before that I’m aware of. But it’s what’s going on with Jacky – emotionally, physically – that really matters. It’s the only thing that matters. When the film shows what happened to him as a child, everything already seen in the film needs to be re-evaluated. In an instant, he becomes a toweringly tragic figure. (If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend avoiding other reviews that explain what happened to him when he was a child. I went into it not knowing anything and watching it unfold, not knowing what was coming, was part of the power of the film.)

Bullhead is such a harrowing portrait of what it means to be a man, of what masculinity means, of what it means when a man feels unable to access masculinity in a meaningful or lasting way, that it deserves to stand toe to toe with other similar portraits like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.

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I cannot say enough good things about Schoenaerts’ performance. He actually made me cry. I couldn’t believe that the character I saw in the first half hour of the film could make me cry, because I’m pretty tapped out in feeling sorry for men who don’t know how to express their feelings. My response to Jacky went way beyond “feeling sorry.” My response was a cry of pain for him, a desperate scrabbling for some kind of relief for this poor man, someone to understand, to at least say, “I get it. It is totally unfair what has happened to you.” But even if that were to happen, Jacky’s reaction to any topic that even comes close to that tender spot inside of him, is to flip out, punch a wall, get wasted, beat someone up. The damage to Jacky is so total that Bullhead is extremely difficult viewing.

There are those who prefer movies that provide a glimmer of hope. Well, that’s fine for some movies. But Bullhead is, above all else, a psychological study of a man haunted by a trauma in his past, a trauma that changed the entire course of his life. And Schoenaerts is so deeply immersed in the role of Jacky that he is basically unrecognizable, especially the expression on his face, deadened-eyes showing almost otherworldly endurance as well as scanning the landscape for threats, itching for a fight, his arms hunched at his sides as he walks, looking as though even walking is too vulnerable an act for him, because surely everyone sees, surely everyone knows what happened to him, surely everyone knows what it is like for him inside. And that he cannot bear.

There was another witness to the traumatizing event in his childhood. A girl. And the look on her face back then – sad and horrified – stuck with him. He has kept track of her ever since, sitting in a car outside the perfume shop she owns. The scene in the perfume shop, when he finally gets up the courage to go in, is a masterpiece. It comes so late in the game, and you’re so familiar with Jacky’s life by that point, and who he is, that seeing him in this delicate and girlie space is almost as unwatchable as the childhood trauma. It’s a totally foreign environment for him, and he has to adjust himself to seem gentle, to even try to smile. He has to deal with another person on equal ground instead of as a battering ram. And she’s a woman. There are no women in his life, except for his family members. All of this takes a mighty effort. To even say his name to her when she makes out his sales slip is difficult for him because he wonders if she might recognize his name.

He follows her to a nightclub, with throbbing dance music, pretty girls in short skirts, a high-end crowd. You have to wear a proper shirt to enter and when Jacky tries to pass by the bouncer, they stop him. He’s wearing a T-shirt. He can rent a shirt from them for 5 euros or whatever. He had no idea that this was how things were. He’s a farmer. There’s a language barrier there too. Everyone knows he’s not a French-speaker, everyone knows he’s not really “supposed” to be there. Jacky is a fish out of water, again, but he wants to go inside so he pays the money to buy a shirt from the nightclub. He galumphs through the gyrating dance floor, standing on a chair to scan the crowd, see if he can see her.

At one point, and this was when the brilliance of this performance really struck me – like a bolt of lightning, I literally got goosebumps: he stands by himself with two glasses of vodka, gulping them down, liquid courage. He’s clocked where she is, laughing with friends at the end of the bar. He keeps his eye on her. He feels his alone-ness and out of place-ness acutely. He feels that everyone can see everything about him, including the fact that he has no idea what he’s doing, has never been in a nightclub, has a huge crush on that girl over there, probably everyone can see his trauma, his masculinity problems. He is stripped bare and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, so, for about 2 seconds, he pretends to groove with the dance music. Just in case anyone’s watching. Just in case anyone is looking at him and thinking, “Look at that sad guy all by himself crushing on a girl who doesn’t know he exists.” When of course nobody is thinking about him at all. Or if they ARE thinking about him, they are thinking, “Okay, that guy looks fucking scary.” In his vulnerability, in his desire to look like he should be there, to look like he is part of the human race – from which he feels forever banished – he pretends to dance.

It’s one of the most tragic things I’ve ever seen. I re-wound the moment 5 times.

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Vulnerability like that – and inventive psychological bits of business – is what Schoenaerts brings to the table. He’s such a huge guy, 6’2″, and his body is massive. His vulnerability is startling. It’s what makes him a natural movie star. He often plays guys bound up in their own pain, in their muscles and physical prowess, unable to speak of what’s happening with them. He often plays blue-collar guys intimidated by and ignored by the white-collar world, the kind of guy you’d write off as a thug with one glance. I have huge affection for his performance in Rust and Bone (a great film, one of the best of that year), and there – he plays a big KID, a messy careless sometimes-cruel guy, where you know that he’s actually a good person, somewhere, he just needs to grow up and take responsibility for who he is in the world. In Rust and Bone, he plays a boxer, another guy obsessed with his body, always in movement, jogging, and training, and swimming, and fucking. But there’s a light in his eyes. A light of curiosity, humor, and then … finally … kindness. Always there but it needed encouragement to come on out and express itself. That’s part of growing up, part of being a man.

In Bullhead, just one year earlier, Schoenaerts takes the light in his eyes … and snuffs it out.

It’s a tremendous performance.

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Posted in Movies | Tagged | 9 Comments

It’s Bikini Weather

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I do NOT look happy with my situation. Perhaps it is because my bikini is cutting off my circulation.

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On This Day: August 7, 1934: “It must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.”

On December 6, 1933, the US Court of Appeals judged Ulysses by James Joyce to be NOT obscene and declared that the book could be admitted into the United States. On August 7, 1934, Ulysses appeared in bookstores.

Here’s the first American edition of the book:

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The book was initially published by Shakespeare & Co. in 1922, and had been banned immediately. The only way to get it was to order it on the black market, smuggle it into your country in a box of sweaters or whatever, or visit Paris and buy a copy at the actual Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. Shipments of books were seized by U.S. Customs. The legal battles were drawn out for a decade. Despite the fact that it was already the most talked-about book of the young century, very few people had an opportunity to actually read it, and – worse for Joyce – Joyce couldn’t make any money off it. Black market editions didn’t fill his pocket. A bowdlerized edition was brought out which was then suppressed. Joyce was already working on Finnegans Wake, of course, but imagine … just imagine … what those 11 years were like, the 12 years, of having written UlyssesULYSSES – and having it not be available to the public.

Finally, after all of the appeals in the U.S. courts, the decision came to federal Judge John M. Woolsey.

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Woolsey was an interesting guy who hailed from South Carolina and was nominated by President Calvin Coolidge for his seat on the U.S. District Court of Southern New York in 1929. The case against Ulysses was not the first time Woolsey was required to weigh in on freedom of expression and censorship issues. There were a couple of cases leading up to the Ulysses case: one book on “married love” which had been labeled obscene, one book on contraception that had also been labeled obscene. Woolsey’s decisions were careful and beautifully articulate (he was an amazing writer), and he judged in both of those cases that the books (as well as the subject matter) were NOT obscene.

It’s worth it to take a look at his decision in 1931 about the book “Married Love.”. He was a master at the long lost art of rhetoric. He builds his case, meticulously, and then weighs in at the end.

“Married Love” is a considered attempt to explain to married people how their mutual sex life may be made happier.

To one who had read Havelock Ellis, as I have, the subject-matter of Dr. Stope’s book is not wholly new, but it emphasizes the woman’s side of sex questions. It makes also some apparently justified criticisms of the inopportune exercise by the man in the marriage relation of what are often referred to as his conjugal or marital rights, and it pleads with seriousness, and not without some eloquence, for a better understanding by husbands of the physical and emotional side of the sex life of their wives.

I do not find anything exceptionable anywhere in the book, and I cannot imagine a normal mind to which this book would seem to be obscene or immoral within the proper definition of these words or whose sex impulses would be stirred by reading it.

Whether or not the book is scientific in some of its theses is unimportant. It is informative and instructive, and I think that any married folk who read it cannot fail to be benefited by its counsels of perfection and its frank discussion of the frequent difficulties which necessarily arise in the more intimate aspects of married life, for as Professor William G. Sumner used aptly to say in his lectures on the Science of Society at Yale, marriage, in its essence, is a status of antagonistic co-operation.

In such a status, necessarily, centripetal and centrifugal forces are continuously at work, and the measure of its success obviously depends on the extent to which the centripetal forces are predominant.

The book before me here has as its whole thesis the strengthening of the centripetal forces in marriage, and instead of being inhospitably received, it should, I think, be welcomed within our borders.

That is rather beautiful, I think, and also inspirational, in terms of its open-mindedness, compassion, and clarity of thought.

Let’s also check out his conclusion in his 1931 decision about the book “Contraception:”

I have read “Contraception,” and I find that it does not fall, in any respect, within these definitions of the words “obscene” or “immoral.”

“Contraception” is written primarily for the medical profession. It is stated, in an introduction written by an eminent English doctor, to be the first book dealing fully with its subject-matter — the theory, history, and practice of birth control. It is a scientific book written with obvious seriousness and with great decency, and it gives information to the medical profession regarding the operation of birth control clinics and the instruction necessary to be given at such clinics to women who resort thereto. It tells of the devices used, now and in the past, to prevent conception, and expresses opinions as to those which are preferable from the point of view of efficiency and of the health of the user.

Such a book, although it may run counter to the views of many persons who disagree entirely with the theory underlying birth control, certainly does not fall within the test of obscenity or immorality laid down by me in the case of United States v. One Obscene Book, Entitled “Married Love,” 48 F. (2d) 821, at page 824, for the reading of it would not stir the sex impulses of any person with a normal mind.

Actually the emotions aroused by the book are merely feelings of sympathy and pity, evoked by the many cases instanced in it of the sufferings of married women due to ignorance of its teachings. This, I believe, will be the inevitable effect of reading it on all persons of sensibility unless by their prejudices the information it contains is tabooed.

VI. It follows that as “Contraception” is not an obscene or immoral book, and, obviously, is not a drug, medicine, or an article for the prevention of conception within the meaning of title 19, U. S. C., § 1305, it may be imported into the United States and the libel brought in this case to test that question must be dismissed.

If one individual thinks something is offensive or immoral, that does not mean the work should not be available for all. That’s not how a free society works. That’s not how freedom of expression works.

Considering these landmark decisions, Woolsey was primed to be “the one” to weigh in on Joyce’s “dirty book.”

The case was known as: United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. Bennett Cerf, influential American publisher, had been a champion of the cause, pushing the case forward, understanding the urgency of the situation. When Ulysses was finally brought out in America in 1934, Judge Woolsey’s decision (printed below) was included in the edition its entirety, making it the most widely distributed judicial decision in history.

Morris L. Ernst, counsel for Random House, who successfully defended the book against obscenity charges in 1933-34, wrote in his foreward to the 1934 edition:

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Judge Woolsey’s decision. For decades the censors have fought to emasculate literature. They have tried to set up the sensibilities of the prudery-ridden as a criterion for society, have sought to reduce the reading matter of adults to the level of adolescents and subnormal persons, and have nurtured evasions and sanctimonies.

Here is Judge Woolsey’s decision in its entirety. It is a masterpiece of its kind. Not only is it an important legal decision, but it is also an acutely sensitive analysis of the book itself:

United States Discrict Court, Southern District of New York, Opinion A. 110-59

December 6, 1933

On cross motions for a decree in a libel of confiscation, supplemented by a stipulation — hereinafter described — brought by the United States against the book “Ulysses” by James Joyce, under Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305, on the ground that the book is obscene within the meaning of that Section, and, hence, is not importable into the United States, but is subject to seizure, forfeiture and confiscation and destruction.

United States Attorney — by Samuel C. Coleman, Esq., and Nicholas Atlas, Esq., of counsel — for the United States, in support of motion for a decree of forfeiture, and in opposition to motion for a decree dismissing the libel.

Messrs. Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst, — by Morris L. Ernst, Esq., and Alexander Lindey, Esq., of counsel — attorneys for claimant Random House, Inc., in support of motion for a decree dismissing the libel, and in opposition to a motion for a decree of forfeiture.

WOOLSEY, J:
The motion for a decree dismissing the libel herein is granted, and, consequently, of course, the Government’s motion for a decree of forfeiture and destruction is denied.

Accordingly a decree dismissing the libel without costs may be entered herein.

1. The practice followed in this case is in accordance with the suggestion made by me in the case of United States v. One Book Entitled “Contraception”, 51 F. (2d) 525, and is as follows:

After issue was joined by the filing of the claimant’s answer to the libel for forfeiture against “Ulysses”, a stipulation was made between the United States Attorney’s office and the attorneys for the claimant providing:

1. That the book “Ulysses” should be deemed to have been annexed to and to have become part of the libel just as if it had been incorporated in its entirety therein.
2. That the parties waived their right to a trial by jury.
3. That each party agreed to move for decree in its favor.
4. That on such cross motions the Court might decide all the questions of law and fact involved and render a general finding thereon.
5. That on the decision of such motions the decree of the Court might be entered as if it were a decree after trial.

It seems to me that a procedure of this kind is highly appropriate in libels for the confiscation of books such as this. It is an especially advantageous procedure in the instant case because on account of the length of “Ulysses” and the difficulty of reading it, a jury trial would have been an extremely unsatisfactory, if not an almost impossible, method of dealing with it.

2. I have read “Ulysses” once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter.

“Ulysses” is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of “Ulysses” is, therefore, a heavy task.

3. The reputation of “Ulysses” in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, — that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.

If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow.

But in “Ulysses”, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

4. In writing “Ulysses”, Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.

Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.

What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.

To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of “Ulysses”. And it also explains another aspect of the book, which I have further to consider, namely, Joyce’s sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.

If Joyce did not attempt to be honest in developing the technique which he has adopted in “Ulysses” the result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to his chosen technique. Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable.

It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.

The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Whether or not one enjoys such a technique as Joyce uses is a matter of taste on which disagreement or argument is futile, but to subject that technique to the standards of some other technique seems to me to be little short of absurd.

Accordingly, I hold that “Ulysses” is a sincere and honest book and I think that the criticisms of it are entirely disposed of by its rationale.

5. Furthermore, “Ulysses” is an amazing tour de force when one considers the success which has been in the main achieved with such a difficult objective as Joyce set for himself. As I have stated, “Ulysses” is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.

If one does not wish to associate with such folk as Joyce describes, that is one’s own choice. In order to avoid indirect contact with them one may not wish to read “Ulysses”; that is quite understandable. But when such a real artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

To answer this question it is not sufficient merely to find, as I have found above, that Joyce did not write “Ulysses” with what is commonly called pornographic intent, I must endeavor to apply a more objective standard to his book in order to determine its effect in the result, irrespective of the intent with which it was written.

6. The statute under which the libel is filed only denounces, in so far as we are here concerned, the importation into the United States from any foreign country of “any obscene book”. Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305. It does not marshal against books the spectrum of condemnatory adjectives found, commonly, in laws dealing with matters of this kind. I am, therefore, only required to determine whether “Ulysses” is obscene within the legal definition of that word.

The meaning of the word “obscene” as legally defined by the Courts is: tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts. Dunlop v. United States, 165 U.S. 486, 501; United States v. One Book Entitled “Contraception”, 51 F. (2d) 525, 528; and compare Dysart v. United States, 272 U.S. 655, 657; Swearingen v. United States 151 U.S. 446, 450; United States v. Dennett, 39 F. (2d) 564, 568 (C.C.A. 2); People v. Wendling, 258 N.Y. 451, 453.

Whether a particular book would tend to excite such impulses and thoughts must be tested by the Court’s opinion as to its effect on a person with average sex instincts — what the French would call l’homme moyen sensuel — who plays, in this branch of legal inquiry, the same role of hypothetical reagent as does the “reasonable man” in the law of torts and “the man learned in the art” on questions of invention in patent law.

The risk involved in the use of such a reagent arises from the inherent tendency of the trier of facts, however fair he may intend to be, to make his reagent too much subservient to his own idiosyncrasies. Here, I have attempted to avoid this, if possible, and to make my reagent herein more objective than he might otherwise be, by adopting the following course:

After I had made my decision in regard to the aspect of “Ulysses”, now under consideration, I checked my impressions with two friends of mine who in my opinion answered to the above stated requirement for my reagent.

These literary assessors — as I might properly describe them — were called on separately, and neither knew that I was consulting the other. They are men whose opinion on literature and on life I value most highly. They had both read “Ulysses”, and, of course, were wholly unconnected with this cause.

Without letting either of my assessors know what my decision was, I gave to each of them the legal definition of obscene and asked each whether in his opinion “Ulysses” was obscene within that definition.

I was interested to find that they both agreed with my opinion: that reading “Ulysses” in its entirety, as a book must be read on such a test as this, did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.

It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned. Such a test as I have described, therefore, is the only proper test of obscenity in the case of a book like “Ulysses” which is a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.

I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes “Ulysses” is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of “Ulysses” on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

“Ulysses” may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.

JOHN M. WOOLSEY
United States District Judge

Gorgeous.

Woolsey’s decision was affirmed by the Second District Court of Appeals in 1934. It’s well worth it to remember that America was the first English-speaking country where Ulysses became available to all, sold in bookstores, not illegal in any way. Go, ‘Murrica. Go, Woolsey.

When Joyce heard of Woolsey’s decision, he commented:

Thus one half of the English speaking world surrenders. The other half will follow … And Ireland 1,000 years hence.

He exaggerated, of course, but he was pretty near right. Woolsey’s decision was a triumph for literature and freedom of expression.

To quote Joyce from his earlier novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.

Posted in James Joyce, On This Day | Tagged | 19 Comments

Happy Birthday, Robert Mitchum


Robert Mitchum, Cannes 1954, photograph by Leo Mirkine

Excerpt from Are You Anybody? An Actor’s Life, by Bradford Dillman

For the past fifty years Robert Mitchum has been captivating filmgoers with his sleepy demeanor. He was the first actor to be jailed for marijuana, and it’s no state secret he’s enjoyed a cocktail or two in his time. But his toughness is no pose.

Before beginning a film with him, Henry Hathaway, a director acknowledged as a card-carrying sadist, felt impelled to explain himself.

“Listen, Mitch,” he said. “I got this thing. Sometimes I get a little excited, call actors names and cuss them, but I want you to know it’s nothing personal. It’s just me.”

“I hear you, Henry,” Mitchum replied. “I know how it is. I’ve got this thing, too. See, whenever somebody calls me names or cusses me out, I haul off and bust him in the mouth. Nothing personal. It’s just me.”

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Mitchum in prison for marijuana possession, 1949

Dillman shares another anecdote:

Yet few know what an intelligent, articulate man Mitchum is, how charming he can be. He’s also a prankster. When I worked with him on location in Hong Kong, our director was hearing-impaired. In the briefcase used for transporting his script he carried several hearing aid battery replacements. We’d rehearsed a scene in an office, we were doing Take One, I’d fed Mitch his cue, when he mouthed his response. No sound.

“Cut.” The director was pounding his ear. “Damn,” he said, removing the device, opening his briefcase to install a fresh battery. “Okay, let’s go again.”

Take Two. I give the cue, Mitch mouths his line.

“Cut.” The director pounding his ear anew. “Who makes these things, anyway?”

It took four takes for him to realize he’d been victimized by an imp.

The imp struck again during a scene in the lobby of the Hotel Peninsula, he and I seated at a table. Normally spectators keep a respectful distance as they observe the moviemaking process, but a blonde plumper spilling out of her pink pants suit couldn’t restrain herself. Between takes she rushed over and did a five-minute number on how Robert Mitchum ruled her life, how jealous he made her husband, how her friends teased her about her crush. It went on and on, the actor grunting occasionally before pretending to nod off.

The lady’s moving lips were right in his ear when Mitch jolted awake. Feigning shock, he thundered, “Suck what?”

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Excerpt from Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care:

Director and star proved to be ideally matched. In [Robert] Mitchum, [Jacques] Tourneur had found the most expressive embodiment of his own cinematic aesthetic of eloquent, subversive resistance and oneiric sensuality. Tourneur loved Mitchum’s physical grace, the gliding, pantherlike movements, and his underplaying and powerful silences, his expressive quiescence thrilled the director whose films were among the quietest in the history of talking pictures. He savored Mitchum’s ability to listen in a scene. “There are a large number of players who don’t know how to listen,” said Tourneur. “While one of their partners speaks to them, they simply think, I don’t have anything to do during this; let’s try not to let the scene get stolen from me. Mitchum can be silent and listen to a five-minute speech. You’ll never lose sight of him and you’ll understand that he takes in what is said to him, even if he doesn’t do anything. That’s how one judges good actors.”

In Mitchum’s opposite, the sort who tried “not to let the scene get stolen”, Tourneur might possibly have been thinking of Kirk Douglas. With his explosive starring roles – Champion, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story – still a few years off, Douglas was becoming typed for intelligent, urbane characters, supporting parts. As Whit Sterling, certainly among the most well-spoken and civilized of ruthless racketeers, Douglas gave a brilliantly controlled and charismatic performance, but he could not have been thrilled by another second fiddle part – especially second fiddle to Mitchum, who had already taken from him the lead in Pursued. The two got along well enough off the set, but the rivalry would flare as soon as the cameras began to turn. Since Tourneur was not about to accept any obvious histrionics in his diminuendo world, Douglas was left to try and out-underact Mitchum, an exercise in futility, he discovered. He tried adding distracting bits of business during Mitchum’s lines and came up with a coin trick, running it quickly between the tops of his fingers. Bob started staring at the fingers until Kirk started staring at the fingers and dropped the coin on the rug. He put the coin away. In another scene, Douglas brought a gold watch fob out of his coat pocket and twirled it around like a propeller. This time everybody stared.

“It was a hoot to watch them go at it,” said Jane Greer. “They were two such different types. Kirk was something of a method actor. And Bob was Bob. You weren’t going to catch him acting. But they both tried to get the advantage. At one point they were actually trying to upstage each other by who could sit the lowest. The one sitting the lowest had the best camera angle, I guess – I don’t know what they were thinking. Bob sat on the couch, so Kirk sat on the table, then one sat on the footstool, and by the end I think they were both on the floor.”

Tourneur, no martinet, liked to give his performers a lot of freedom and waited out the one-upmanship antics with a weary grace. “Quoi qu’il arrive, restez calme,” he liked to say.

Actors were actors. One night he was screening the rushes of a scene with Mitchum and Douglas talking to each other on either side of the frame, and he was startled to see how Paul Valentine – placed in the background and without a line of dialogue – had craftily picked up a magazine and was flipping the pages with an altogether distracting intensity, hijacking the scene.

“Oh, Paul,” he said to the actor, “now I have to keep an eye on you, too?”

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Robert Mitchum in 1958’s “Thunder Road,” a Gearhead Heaven type of movie

The duet in The Night of the Hunter is one of the most memorable and frightening scenes in cinema. A standoff between two dueling brands of Christianity, one that honors compassion and one that honors judgment. One side has to win. The sides cannot coexist. It is a battle still raging in our culture today, and the duet in Night of the Hunter is a chilling evocation of that battle. Whistler’s Mother with a shotgun vs. The Man Out There In the Dark.

Believers, both of them, they are ready to break a Commandment, one of the most important Commandments of all. Until then, they sing.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about this scene.

Mitchum made a big point of never seeming to work. He strolls through movies, smoking, looking around with heavy-lidded eyes, easy, natural, and can be ominous or sexy, sometimes at the same time. He was the ultimate Alpha Male. He could be terrifying (as in Night of the Hunter), or sexy and romantic. He could be a resourceful hero. He could be a sad-sack low-life. He could conduct his own “instrument”, like a Maestro, bringing this or that quality forward, but my analogy makes his work sound deliberate or studied. Nothing he did was ever studied. He was a valid leading man for decades. This cannot be explained. Some things just are.

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Mitchum in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957)

I also love him for personally reaching out to Elvis in 1956, coming to visit the new kid on the block, who was holed up in the Knickerbocker Hotel, filming Love Me Tender. Mitchum was striking out on his own, developing his own projects, and wanted Elvis for an upcoming movie where the two of them would play brothers on a chain gang. (Mitchum, of course, had been on an actual chain gang.) Elvis was so flattered that Mitchum came to see him personally, and also that Mitchum would have thought of him at all. (If you think about their faces, and their eyes and hair, they would be completely believable as brothers.) Elvis wanted to do the movie. BAD. But when he spoke to The Colonel about it, the Colonel was furious that Mitchum went around him and spoke directly to Elvis and the Colonel made it clear to his 21-year-old client that any and all offers had to come to the Colonel FIRST, and Elvis had no business making any deals without the Colonel’s say-so. The image, though, of Elvis and Mitchum, two crazy hep-cats, sitting around in Elvis’ suite in The Knickerbocker, Mitchum “pitching” his project to the young King of Rock ‘n’ Roll …

Well, I guess I just wish I had been there.

David Thomson wrote in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition:

How can I offer this hunk as one of the best actors in the movies? Start by referring back to that dialogue [in Out of the Past]: it touches the intriguing ambiguity in Mitchum’s work, the idea of a man thinking and feeling beneath a calm exterior that there is no need to put “acting” on the surface. And for a big man, he is immensely agile, capable of unsmiling humor, menace, stoicism, and, above all, of watching other people as though he were waiting to make up his mind. Of course, Mitchum has been in bad films, when he slips into the weariness of someone who has read the script, but hopes it may be rewritten. But since the war, no American actor has made more first-class films, in so many different moods.

Friends of Eddie Coyle

Mitchum’s monologue in the bowling alley in the wonderful gritty Friends of Eddie Coyle is a pure example of why Mitchum is so great. Done mainly in one shot, with only a couple of reaction shots.

Watch how Eddie Coyle (Mitchum) puts the arrogant yet stupid gun-runner (Steven Keats) in his place. You can almost see (or at least I can imagine I can see), Keats the actor watching Mitchum the actor, right in his face, thinking, “Holy shit, he is so good.” Or: he’s not thinking at all. Mitchum is so connected to himself and what he’s saying that Keats is drawn into that reality without having to work at it. You see that’s also the thing with genius actors. Not only do they make it look easy but they HELP everyone else around them to be as good as they are. That’s how much authority they have.

The monologue I’m talking about starts at around the 1 minute mark. It is rare today to let a scene go that long without a million cuts. To let someone just talk in that way. Movies today are poorer for it.

This is acting, in its purest most beautiful form.

To quote David Thomson again on Mitchum:

Untouchable.

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Posted in Actors, On This Day | Tagged | 27 Comments

Little Men (2016) d. Ira Sachs

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Little Men, directed by one of my favorite film-makers, Ira Sachs, is wonderful.

My review of Little Men is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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