Doodad Kind of Town

I Do Not Want to Live in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s World
March 27, 2009, 12:46 am
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There’s been a whole lot of George Sanders in the blogosphere lately. First, there was a wildly popular pair of posts at Self-Styled Siren, one of which pondered how Sanders might have fared playing Bernie Madoff. Then, Greg at Cinema Styles posted some lovely vintage photos of Sanders and his second wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor.

All of which inspired me to pull down from the shelf one on my most bizarre used-book-store finds,- Gabor’s “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, and How to Get a Rid of a Man.”

I’ve had the book for years, but I’ve never sat down and read it from cover to cover, even though I could probably finish it in an hour or two. (It’s not a weighty tome by any means.) To do so would be the literary equivalent of eating a carton of Cool Whip for dinner; it might sound like a fun and decadent thing to do, but afterwards, you’d probably wind up feeling a little sick.

And make no mistake – the book is a little sickmaking. Most of it is exactly what you’d expect from a frivolous golddigger who’d already been through five husbands at the time of its publication in 1970 (and has had four weddings since.) There are lots of predictable bon mots, along the lines of what you’d hear on a slow night at the Merv Griffin Show. A sample: “The best way to attract a man is to have a magnificent bosom and a half-size brain and let them both show…. the only place men want depth in a woman is in her decolletage.” Catching a man calls for skill in mixing martinis, cooking breakfast, and striking the delicate balance of showering the man with extravagant presents and flattery while keeping yourself bewitchingly unavailable. “A successful romance is like a tug of war. For him, nothing is more boring than constant surrender.”

When Zsa Zsa lacks in originality and insight, she makes up for in blatantly outrageous advice that no one in her right mind would take seriously. The best time to look for your next husband? While you’re still married to your current one! In fact, one of Gabor’s cardinal rules for scouting a new spouse is that it must be someone who’d make a good ex. Very young women should marry much older men – among other things, it eliminates the problem of dealing with in-laws (“If they’re still living at all, they’ll be old enough to be your grandparents and will dote on you.”) Then “when she’s older and ready for her new young husband, her children will be the right age to have friends for her to marry, and it will be easy and convenient for her to pick one out when they’re over for birthday parties.” Oh, that darn Zsa Zsa!

But here comes the really sick-making part. Discussing the charms of Russian men, Zsa Zsa tells us: “I saw a movie about Isadora Duncan and there was a wonderful episode with a Russian lover who beat her up and tore up all her pictures and said ‘You live in the past. You have to live in the now.’ And she fell madly in love with him…..and I’m sure I would have too.”

Hmmm. Well, I’m sure I would have kicked his ass out and called the police. I’m not interested in abusive men, but perhaps Ms. Gabor is. And nowhere is that more queasily hinted at than in her remembrances of her five-year marriage to George Sanders.

Obeying her own advice, she picked him out as husband Number Three while still married to hotelier Conrad Hilton. While pregnant with Hilton’s daughter, Gabor and her mother went to the movies to see Sanders in “The Moon and Sixpence,” after which Gabor announced “That man is my next husband.” What made her fall in love with Sanders? Among other things, it was this line of dialogue: “All women are like little beasts. You have to beat them and that’s when they love you.”

So Gabor eventually met Sanders and immediately told him “Mr. Sanders, I’m madly in love with you!” To which he responded “How well I understand you, my dear.” Infatuated, she presented him with a 24-karat gold cigarette case engraved with the words “I’m so glad I met you”; in return, she breathlessly relates, Sanders “allowed me to buy the cigarettes to keep it filled.”

Following another of her own cuckoo-bird guidelines for marital bliss, Zsa Zsa “honeymooned” with Sanders before they were married, indeed while she was still married to Hilton. The site of their pre-nuptial honeymoon? The Hilton in Palm Beach. When Sanders checked out he was told “There is no charge. Mrs. Hilton goes with the compliments of the house.”

If you weren’t already feeling a little queasy about this relationship, the notion of Hilton pimping out his wife as a room amenity, along with the scented soaps and the nightly turndown service ought to have done it. (Especially since Zsa Zsa herself seems to find it all so charming and funny.) But it gets worse. On their wedding night, Sanders moans that “I’ll never be able to make love to you again. Before you were the glamorous Mrs. Hilton, and now you’re just plain Mrs. Sanders,” and the two of them wind up playing chess all night. In the years to follow, Sanders would attempt to strangle Gabor at least once, and would also dangle her outside a hotel window by the fabric of her dress (“thank God the dress was good and tight”) in a fit of jealousy over “a young guitar player named Alfonso who was too big to hold outside the window.”

Everything Gabor writes about Sanders indicates he’s a man any sensible woman would run, screaming, away from. But Gabor isn’t known for being sensible. She prattles on and on about how well she get on with her both her ex and his current wife. And she notes that all her other former husbands are equally huge fans of “The Moon and Sixpence.”

I know I’m not supposed to take any of this seriously, that I’m supposed to just chuckle and roll my eyes appreciatively when Zsa Zsa writes stuff like this: “If all your friends are divorced naturally you are feeling left out of things….but don’t rush off to a lawyer. Not everyone is cut out to be divorced.” Or this little bit of wisdom about child custody matters: “This is easy to figure out. You keep all the young children, and let the father have all those that are over eighteen. This is because: 1) the older ones are never home anyway; 2)the older ones are a big headache to take care of; and3)they give away your age.”

Yeah, I know that’s all for laughs. But honestly, the more I read, the more depressed I got- especially by the parts about Sanders. He comes off as such an abusive, egotistical shit, and the fact that Gabor continues to flatter and praise him just makes it worse. About this time last year, I wrote glowingly about Sanders’ performance in “All About Eve.” But, I swear, I’m never going to look at Addison DeWitt the same way again.

Change of Perspective
March 21, 2009, 12:40 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s been a bit of a rough week here. My recent, nearly healed back injury flared up badly for a few days, and it was back to the muscle relaxers, the ice packs, and the generally gloomy and unproductive state of mind that plagued me throughout most of the winter. So much for the promised flurry of new posts I was going to get busy on this week.

But while I may not have been writing lately, I’ve certainly been reading. And one particular blog entry has been much on my mind today. Over at Cinema Styles, Greg (the blogger formerly known as Jonathan Lapper) put up a thoughtful and heartfelt post entitled A Conscious Effort describing his passion to explore the ways that films and photographs capture and preserve the details of our collective history. If you haven’t read this yet, you should. It’s inspiring.

And reading about Greg’s dedication has me thinking more about my own blogging goals. (As does the recent second anniversary of this blog’s inaugural post.) I would love to be one of those people who come up with a thoughtful, insightful analysis of a film on a daily or almost-daily basis. But I can’t do that right now. For starters, I have a day job which is not conducive to such an endeavor; as an IT project manager in a company which carefully monitors its employees’ internet usage, I simply cannot put up blog posts during work hours. My workload is of the feast-or-famine variety. It’s been more famine than feast lately, which has afforded me some stolen moments to contribute to comments threads throughout the day. But the famine is rapidly coming to an end. Soon I’ll be swamped and lucky even to see a couple of movies a week, let alone write about them.

It’s at this point where you’re probably expecting me to bemoan my meaningless existence as a corporate drone and to rail against an unfulfilling lifestyle that drains my creative juices. You may even be expecting an “Eat, Pray, Love”-style revelation of nights spent crying on the bathroom floor, imploring God to deliver me from the three confining walls of my cubicle.

Well, if you’re looking for that kind of Oprah-esque “aha!”moment, keep moving. There’s nothing to see here. The truth is, I actually LIKE my day job. I like the left-brain challenges of analyzing and solving problems. I like the camaraderie of working with a project team to design and build new and better computer systems. I even flourish under a certain amount of deadline pressure – it stresses me, but it also energizes me. I have no burning desire to give any of this up right now.

And yet, I also love to write. One of my greatest satisfactions in life is to capture what I love or hate about a movie (or a book, a person, a place I’ve travelled to) in my own words, and be able to communicate my enthusiasm or distaste for that experience to someone else. Preferably to a whole lot of someone elses. I want both an audience, and the opportunity for dialogue with other like-minded cinephiles, bookworms and travellers. Someone once said “We read to know that we are not alone.” I also blog to know that I am not alone.

I need both these occupations in my life for the time being. I need both the structure of my job and the creativity-plus-fellowship of my blog. But I think I also need a spark of new inspiration for said blog, and I think that’s going to come from broadening – rather than narrowing- its focus.

Let me explain:

Lately, I’ve seen more movies that I haven’t felt like writing about than ones I’ve been dying to share my views on. Among the “recently viewed but not reviewed”: “The Wrestler,” “Gran Torino,” “Last Chance Harvey,” “The International,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “Ghost Town,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Children’s Hour,” and “Dogville.” You’ll notice there are some damn good movies on that list, even a couple on which I’ve lavished considerable praise (or derision) on numerous other people’s comment threads. But somehow, I just can’t be bothered to put my own reviews together. In many cases, it feels like I’d be very hard pressed to add any original insights to the general discussion. What’s left to say about “Grand Torino” or “Revolutionary Road” at this point that hasn’t been said, repeatedly and plenty eloquently, at every other movie blog in cyberspace?

I still love movies, still watch them religiously. But I do other things that I’d like to write about once in awhile. I travel, I go to plays, I read books, I sing in two choirs. I go to an occasional class on Buddhist meditation, but I’ve yet to master the practice of detaching from my thoughts. (When I tell the monk who leads these classes that I find meditation boring and that I’d rather think my thoughts than detach from them, he laughs out loud and compliments me on my honesty His appreciative laughter draws me back to his classes again and again, even when I’m sure I’ll never get the hang of it.) I’d rather write about some of these experiences than be the 14,000th person in the blogosphere to weigh in on “Watchmen.”

So, be warned. I’m going to be veering “off topic” every now and then. Hopefully those of you who’ve been reading me up to this point will be coming along for the ride.

Don’t Forget! Monday is TOERIFC Day at Coosa Creek Cinema.
March 15, 2009, 11:05 pm
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Be sure to jump in the Creek tomorrow – that’s Coosa Creek Cinema, in case you don’t know – to join in the lively discussion of Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved From Drowning.” There’s sure to be lots of thoughtful and insightful commentary from host Rick Olson and the usual TOERIFC suspects. If you’ve seen the movie recently (I watched it myself last night, for the first time since my college freshman-year film studies class), feel free to join in the conversation.

Meanwhile, “Doodad Kind of Town” has been relatively quiet this past week. (I was catching up on pursuits other than watching and writing about films – imagine that! Unfortunately even cinephiles eventually have to sit down and work on their tax returns.) But even as I took a break, the blog reached a significant milestone: March 10 marked the second anniversary of “Doodad’s” inaugural post. In honor of that milestone, I’ll be posting a lot more in the week to come. Please stop back often!

My Rainy Weekend: Making a Dent in the DVR Queue
March 9, 2009, 12:10 am
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As I write this, I’m sorta/kinda watching Cecil DeMille’s last silent film “The Godless Girl.”

I gave up attentive viewing about a half hour ago, but the good part of the movie was actually over and done within the first ten minutes. At that point, it was still an overheated cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of “Young Atheist Societies” on the God-fearing high school students of America, circa 1929. It all looked like good, campy fun, with ominous close-ups of the Young Atheist’s flyers (“Kill the Bible!”) followed by some wildly flirtatious banter between the saucy brunette vixen who heads up the society (Lina Baqsuette) and the handsome Christian youth leader (Tom Keene) who clearly adores her, if not her principles.

I don’t know what the Christian kids do at their meetings, but the atheist kids are a barrel of laughs. Their “swearing in” ceremony (depicted above) involves taking an oath with one hand on the head of Koko the chimp. “Don’t high hat him,” Basquette warns. “He’s your cousin!”

But then, just when you’re thinking “This looks like fun!” (in a corny, “Reefer Madness” kind of way),it goes all soggy and serious. The Christians break into an atheists’ meeting and pelt them with rotten eggs. Which leads to an all-out brawl. Which then leads to the death of a Young Atheist who falls over a stair railing and plummets to her death. And not just any atheist, but the one with the long, Mary Pickford curls and the haunted, innocent eyes who’s obviously being duped into a non-belief she’s not quite ready to embrace; you can see her deathbed conversion coming from a mile away.

So the two leads are sent up to reform school on manslaughter charges. Basquette befriends a tart-tongued Marion Davies lookalike, and Keene gets tortured by a brutal guard. Then they escape together on a stolen milk wagon. Then they fall in love. They they get caught. By the time I started writing this, Basquette was back at reform school and handcuffed to a wall, while the school catches on fire. And all the while, Basquette is moving closer to becoming a Christian, while Keene finds his faith severely tested. You know when they’re thinking about God, because “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” or “What Wondrous Love Is This” cranks up on the soundtrack at those moments. They think about God a lot – I’m already thoroughly sick of “O Sacred Head…” and we’re less than a week into Lent.

“The Godless Girl” is one of those movies I stumble onto by browsing through several days worth of TCM’s onscreen program listings at a pop, searching for classics I’ve missed or lesser known oddities. I stockpile them in the DVR queue – at any given time, there are 15 or 20 films in there, waiting to be watched – and tell myself I’ll get to them some rainy weekend.

Well this was that rainy weekend. And here’s what else I watched:

“All Night Long” sets the plot of “Othello” in an after-hours South London jazz club presided over by Richard Attenborough. Patrick McGoohan has the Iago role, this time imagined as a drummer named Johnny Cousins. He’s looking to break up the marriage of jazz pianist Aurelious Rex (Paul Harris) and his singer wife Delia (Marti Stevens).

It’s an intriguing premise, not terribly well executed. Save for McGoohan, (and Betsy Blair as his sad-faced, mistreated wife) the performances are largely wooden. Neither Harris nor Stevens has much personality, and although Stevens was a cabaret singer in real life, her musical numbers have a curious lack of passion.

But it’s almost worth watching for the cameo appearances by jazz greats like Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, and John Dankworth. They all get featured musical moments, which is good; unfortunately, they also all make awkward entrances accompanied by stilted dialogue from Attenborough (“Dave, so glad to see. We didn’t think you’d make it.” “John, lovely to see you. So sorry Cleo (Laine) couldn’t make it.”) Honestly it would have been much cooler just to have the camera just find these guys at the party, doing their thing.

Finally, I got around to seeing “Easy Rider.” And all I have to say is “Well, now I can say I’ve seen ‘Easy Rider’.” It was one to check off the Unseen list, not much more. And I’d love to know how much pharmacological fortification Dennis Hopper needed to direct it- however much it was, it shows.

Whatever landmark qualities “Easy Rider”once had are lost on me, not least because its grooviness is so male-defined. Only men like Hopper and Peter Fonda get to abandon all responsibility and hit the open road in search of meaning; the women are just there to provide their menfolk with hot sex and home cooking. That’s not countercultural -that’s status quo.

March 7, 2009, 1:17 am
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The next time you’re at the local multiplex, struggling to enjoy the feature while the guy behind you loudly chomps popcorn and explains the plot to his date, remember these words from cinephile extraordinaire Jack Angstreich:

“You can’t let people ruin a film. I’ve had to rip the food out of people’s hands and throw it on the floor. Really, there’s no alternative. If you don’t get up and beat the person up or threaten them or something, then you’re going to actually have the film be ruined. You have the right to kill them. You have the right to do whatever you need to get them to stop.”

Angstreich is a guy who takes his moviegoing pleasures very seriously. He has the phone numbers of the projectionist booths in every major art house cinema in New York, and he’s been known to get up in the middle of a film to call in complaints about the sound or picture quality from the lobby pay phone. He figures he ought to get a cell phone so he can start making these calls from his seat.

Jack Angstriech is one of five passionate cinephiles profiled in the 2002 documentary “Cinemania.” Actually, “passionate cinephile” doesn’t begin to cover it. These people have no jobs, no spouses, no meaningful relationships to speak of – save for the ones they have with actors and images on the movie screen. Their entire waking life consists of trooping from art house to art house in New York City, seeing up to four films a day after constructing elaborate personal schedules to be sure they have maximized their viewing opportunities. All but one refuse to watch films on television or home video – most don’t even own televisions. And most scrape by on disability benefits, while Angstreich supports himself on the generous inheritance received from his late aunt.

In addition to Jack, there’s also Roberta, a diagnosed obsessive-compulsive and hoarder whose collection of program notes and movie tie-in merchandise is so extensive she can barely move through the tiny apartment from which she’s about to be evicted. She’s been banned from MoMA for physically attacking an usher who attempted to tear her ticket in half, but that hasn’t stopped her from trying to regain entry while disguised in a cheap wig and garish makeup.

Bill, a self-described cultural theorist and philosopher (it says so on his business card!) is besotted with European films and French women, although he spends far more time in the presence of the former than the latter. His long-winded online dating profile includes an exhaustive list of his favorite directors and genres, plus a reference to his “Mediterranean personality”(meaning he has both intellect and passion.) Not mentioned in that profile is his elaborate pre-movie ritual: packing a tote bag with peanut butter sandwiches, an extra sweater, and two vials of anti-anxiety meds; then methodically washing his eyeglasses in order to have a pristine, unobstructed view of the screen.

Then there’s Harvey who lives with his mother and a voluminous collection of movie soundtrack albums, but no turntable on which to play them. He’s committed the running times of thousands of movies to memory, and will notify the theatres when their advertised running times are incorrect. Eric, who eschews foreign films in favor of 30s musicals and comedies, lives in a tiny hovel of an apartment littered with stacks and stacks of VHS tapes and sleeps on a dilapidated sofa. He rattles off his opinions of actresses ranging from Ginger Rogers to Loretta Young with a mechanical, “Rain Man”-like detachment.

“Cinemania” isn’t about movies and the people who love them, so much as it is about cinephilia as a manifestation of mental illness. It has an uncomfortable ‘freak show’ vibe that isn’t entirely modulated by the subjects’ willing – even enthusiastic – participation. You can’t help but come away wondering what happened to these people. Some of them aren’t young, and they obviously have few resources. Roberta, in particular, was well into her sixties when this was filmed and about to lose her home. Filmmakers Angela Christlieb and Steven Kijak don’t give us a clue as to where she ended up, let alone whether they were in any way able to help her. That feels irresponsible to me.

But just when you’re getting really depressed, it’s Angstreich who brings a glimmer of hope and sanity to the proceedings. Despite his violent stance on handling movie talkers (from which he actually does relent moments after declaiming it), he’s by far the most balanced and emotionally healthy of “Cinemania’s” lot. He alone among this group has a non-cinephile roommate, a few past romantic relationships, and some perspective on cinema vs. reality. Over dinner, he tells Bill he “give(s) you credit for liking (European films) but not for understanding them,” then recalls a time when he, like Bill, wanted to live the life of people in French movies, sitting in cafes and having intense romantic experiences. He travelled to Europe where he found out (and here I’m paraphrasing from memory) “It’s just sitting in cafes, it’s boring. I didn’t see the Milky Way in a cup of coffee like in ‘Two or Three Things I Know About Her.’ When you put a frame around something you intensify the experience. But it isn’t real.”

That’s the wisest insight in “Cinemania.” And one that’s likely to be lost on its other subjects.

"Two Lovers"
March 5, 2009, 12:14 am
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It’d be a shame if Joaquin Phoenix’s recent freak-show appearance on the Letterman show kept people away from his latest flm. Because if “Two Lovers” shows us anything, it’s that Phoenix’s acting chops are still very much intact.

In “Two Lovers,” Phoenix plays the heavy-hearted Leonard Kraditor, a thirty-something man who’s moved back into his parents’ Brighton Beach apartment after a broken engagement and subsequent suicide attempt. And, as the film’s title suggests, he is indeed ….torn between two lovers. One, Sandra, is the daughter of his father’s business partner (Vinessa Shaw) and the sort of woman who sheepishly admits that “The Sound of Music” is her favorite movie, not because it’s so good, but because it’s the kind of movie her whole family watches together. The other, his neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a willowy blond goddess who floats in and out of Leonard’s life in inverse proportion to her married lover’s availability.

The “Man Torn Between Good Girl and Bad Girl” story is as old as the hills, and you can see most of the major plot developments coming long before they actually unfold. And yet, while “Two Lovers” doesn’t ultimately take you anywhere surprising, the journey itself is rewarding. In lesser hands,this story would have been played broadly, but director James Gray (who also co-wrote with Ric Menello) and his actors instead give us characters and situations that don’t play to conventional expectations.

Phoenix wears Leonard’s sadness lightly; there isn’t a lot of tortured brooding in his performance, though you can see him struggling – sometimes successfully -to be happy again. The dorky breakdance he performs at a club when he’s trying to impress Michelle and her clubbing pals may be the most priceless thing in the movie. He’s vulnerable, but not in puppy dog way. And he’s a decent guy who respects and loves his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), brushing off their relentless, watchful concern (listening at his door, casting a disapproving eye at Michelle when she pops in unexpectedly) without anger.

Sandra may be the “good”girl but she isn’t cloyingly sweet. As played by Shaw (whose offbeat good looks recall both Hilary Swank and Toni Collette), she has a genuine warmth tempered with a sensible, cautious reserve. And Michelle – volatile and self-absorbed though she may be – isn’t entirely unsympathetic. Paltrow is skillful enough to show us the character’s brokenness and vulnerability. She grabs for Leonard as if he’s a life preserver whenever her life goes out of control, completely unaware of the effect she has on him. But there’s no guile in her actions, and Paltrow never lets you see where Michelle is going next- emotionally or otherwise.

Even Leonard’s parents, for all their hovering and solicitousness, aren’t clingy or controlling. The warmth behind their concern is evident, and they bring a sort of stabilizing coziness to the story.

Leonard’s choice between Sandra and Michelle is finally framed as between being a caretaker or being cared for, between escape from his life or acceptance of it. His decision may not surprise you, but you’ll root for him anyway. And you’ll likely come away hoping that Phoenix reconsiders his own decision to walk away from his acting career. “Two Lovers” offers strong evidence that he’s already in the right profession.