The sad thing, of course, is that this will only deepen the differences and bitterness, and put off that much longer the day when we’ll be a functional country again.
This morning, though, I just plan to enjoy it.
Jeopardy boldly asks the gateway question “Is it okay for a woman to sleep with another man if her husband’s life depends on it?”, and just as forthrightly answers it: “Oh hell, yes—in fact, we kind of want to watch.” On an isolated beach in Baja, motormouth Barry Sullivan gets his leg caught under a jetty as the tide is coming in; Barbara Stanwyck, looking for a rope to pull him free, stumbles across escaped con Ralph Meeker; but the sociopath Meeker is impervious to her pleas for help, leaving her only one card to play. What will she do? “What would any woman do?” she asks in voiceover, her head cocked a little eagerly to one side. She even shakes his hand at the end. Economical (68 minutes), bracingly physical (a young John Sturges directed it), and containing morals which are pleasingly untethered from anything you learned in Sunday school. Recommended.
Well, apparently I won’t be seeing my boss again. I wrote about his medical problems back here, and after his surgery and return to work last year he stayed on until the end of April. He was game, but he never could put any weight back on his frame, and as time passed he started shutting his lights off and “resting” for longer and longer spells, until one day his office was dark for the last half of the day. He virtually crawled out of here that afternoon and never came back; it turned out that the piece of the tumor the doctors couldn’t remove had grown and was now blocking his bowels. He’s been in the VA Hospital in Redwood City since the first week of May, and none of the doctors’ stabs at shrinking the tumor have helped. I was planning on visiting him this week, but because he’s weakened so much in just the last few days his wife tactfully waved me off. She just now emailed me the following: “S. is sleeping a lot now. Looks like the doctors were right – he will sleep more with each passing day and go peacefully in his sleep. With no nutrition, what else can the body do?”
I did get to see him one last time, about two weeks ago. I knew long before then that he’d become pretty important to me. He was the best boss I’ve ever had (by a mile), a friend as much he was a boss, and the man who figuratively saved my life by hiring me when he did. (This was about five years ago, when thanks to being unemployed for a long time I was just wasting away with a feeling that everything was dead.) At the hospital I sat in his room and told him these things while holding his hand, and it didn’t feel strange at all; in fact, it would’ve been agonizing if I hadn’t been able to express it to him. His wife says he’s made his peace with what’s happened, and I guess I have, too.
Anyway, one day a couple months ago I had coffee with an old friend who I reconnected with through Facebook (this is one of the good Facebook stories), and she told me that she really enjoyed this blog “when it isn’t about movies”. I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t, since—you know—it’s largely a movie blog, or at least a place where I log lots of the stuff I watch and either gush or complain or try to make sense of it. More to the point, the slow declines of both my boss and my dad (and I also saw him in Phoenix a weekend ago) haven’t left me bubbling over with mirth. So I just wanted to say, I never meant for this to become the Blog of Gloom & Doom (With Some Brigitte Bardot on the Side). But those are the curves life is throwing right now, so…
Bummer: the marvelously eccentric actress Susan Tyrrell is dead. It’s genuinely weird because just last week I started working on a post about Huston’s Fat City and her righteous performance in it, playing a woman I’ve met what seems like 50 times by now. Here’s a taste (and just bear in mind that when she tells Stacy Keach “I love you so much!” that she barely knows the man):
The better to appreciate it, here’s Ray Milland pretending to be something, but certainly not a chronic alcoholic, in The Lost Weekend, and speechifying in a tony, pseudo-literary gobbledegook that’s an embarrassment to real drunkards everywhere.
Bullshit like that is exactly why Billy Wilder puts me in a coma. Just to go out on a good note, here’s another clip from Fat City. When people say they don’t make ’em like that anymore, this is what they’re talking about.
Almost all of the movie’s great dialog and grungy atmosphere can be found in the novel by Leonard Gardner, who also wrote the screenplay. The novel too is set in Stockton’s dives, flophouses, crumbling gyms, etc. The only diff is that the book takes place in ’59, though the difference between late ’50s Stockton and 1972 Stockton probably isn’t enough to squeeze a dime out of. With its grainy decrepitude and its downwardly-mobile heroes the book kept bringing to mind Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, at least if Suttree had been written by a normal human being.
Tonight it was Agony, Elem Klimov’s picture about Rasputin and the Romanovs in the last year before the Revolution. Klimov made it in ’75, and even though it pulls the curtain back on plenty of Tsarist excesses, those Commie blockheads shelved it until Gorbachev came into power—presumably because he treats the Tsar and his family as people rather than as history’s garbage. The movie suffers from some of the antic stylistic excesses of the ’60s and ’70s, and sadly most of the scenes focused on Rasputin have a dated absurdist bent that grows old quickly. But when the focus is on Nicholas it’s a quieter, more naturalistic work, and a fascinating one. Anatoli Romashin, who plays Nicholas, was like Anthony Hopkins at his best: I could actually read the waves of thought washing across his face as if they were words. A great moment occurs just before we get our first good look at Rasputin, when Nicholas walks into a room where the monk is treating the hemophiliac kid (who’s otherwise not a player in the movie), and Klimov gives us individual closeups of the royal couple, showing by their responses to Rasputin’s therapy what they hold in their hearts: where Aleksandra appears relieved and a touch defensive about it, Nicholas simply looks consumed—90% weakness and 10% doubt. To keep his audience up with the historical context—1916 being a rather hectic year for the Romanov clan—Klimov relies on extensive montages made up of vintage newsreels. The battle scenes from the front have been endlessly recycled, but the 15 or 20 minutes of footage showing daily street-life and the massive demonstrations in St. Petersburg were wholly new to me. In one, taken as the Tsar’s troopers opened fire on a mob as it neared the Winter Palace, the crowd breaks into flight across a huge square. As they scramble hither and yon, so many people are in the frame that they fill every inch of the screen, and with the snow under their feet forming a natural backdrop, they look like a vast flock of birds pinwheeling across the sky. It’s astonishing.
I guess it was about three weeks ago that I watched Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent. Shepitko was Klimov’s wife—I think they met in film school—and she was killed in a car wreck while scouting locations in ’79. Both films are awfully, awfully good, but they were made 10 years apart, and in that time she moved from being a very talented student to something close to a master. Wings, which came out in ’66, carries a heavy debt to the neorealist films, particularly Umberto D.: it bears down like a magnifying glass on a middle-aged woman who was a pilot and national hero during WW II, but who in the film’s present tense has lapsed into the drab, anonymous life of an outmoded headmistress. It’s a wonderful picture, and when I say it’s gorgeously shot, I don’t just mean that it’s pretty, though it’s that, too—I mean that it’s expressive and original. But good as it is, The Ascent is a whole other deal. A metaphysical epic set on the Eastern Front, it follows the moral-cum-spiritual choices made by two Russian partisans after they’re captured by the Nazis. It has the same religious urgency that gripped Dostoevsky’s characters—you feel as if these men, when they each do what they do, understand that they’re sealing their souls for eternity, and everything comes home to roost in a long, emotionally wracking scene that’s ballsier, and more haunting, than anything in Come and See. Which, of course, is saying something.
A weird thing happened tonight, too. I took a break during Agony to get a burrito, and since I didn’t want to eat and take a doctorate course in Russian history at the same time, I threw in Plan 9 from Outer Space to tide me over. It’s a movie I actually like on its own terms, at least in places—its opening puts me in a mood not so far removed from its more reputable cousins Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls—but of course you soon start hitting those mismatched day-and-night cuts and the Lugosi impersonator and, well, it’s still fun, just in a different, more jaw-dropping way. But anyway…it took me half an hour to eat and digest my food a little, and when I turned Plan 9 off and went back to Agony, damn if it didn’t look like another Ed Wood movie. Some of that I’m sure was due to the ’70s shenanigans I mentioned above, but I’ve noticed the same thing happen other times: bad flicks bringing out what might even be nonexistent flaws in even great movies when the proximity between them gets too narrow. That’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I had some training on editing software. It’s an idea I’d love to play around with.