Film Studies

Debunking Hollywood Babylon

If you’re at all interested in Hollywood history — by which I don’t mean the nuts-and-bolts of how any given classic film was made, or the ups and downs of the business, but rather the stories of the people behind the films and the business, the ones we revere, sometimes the ones we deplore, and especially those we’ve forgotten — then you owe it yourself to check out a podcast called You Must Remember This. I’ve been following it for about a year and a half now after first learning about it from Wil Wheaton, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

The podcast’s host, film journalist Karina Longworth, does two cycles or “seasons” per year, and each season is themed around a single topic that reveals “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” to borrow from the show’s prologue. These histories can range from a comparison of the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to the evolution of Jane Fonda from a sex kitten to a political lightning rod, to the McCarthy-era blacklist. (Personally, I started listening during a season called “Dead Blondes,” about all the blonde sex symbols who’ve met untimely and sometimes horrific endings.) The show is very well researched and documented, with source notes and photographs available for each episode on a related blog. It truly is a treasure trove for dedicated movie buffs, or even just people who enjoy a good story.

The current season is of particular interest because I have a personal connection to the topic.

Way back in my teens, I stumbled across a tattered paperback book called Hollywood Babylon in a thrift store. Its author is a guy named Kenneth Anger, which is an apt name considering the book turned out to be 200-some pages of someone grinding a very large ax. Babylon is one of those works that seeks to destroy plaster idols and press hot buttons, and it does that very effectively as it recounts some of the saddest and most sordid tales of Hollywood lore in the cruelest manner possible. It was in the pages of Hollywood Babylon that I first heard the tale of washed-up Peg Entwhistle hurling herself off the “H” of the Hollywood sign… of Lupe Valez’ ignominious suicide (according to Anger, the Latina star had wanted to die in a beautiful, carefully staged scene on her bed, but became sick to her stomach and ended up drowning in her toilet after vomiting)… of va-va-voom girl Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and permanently traumatizing the policeman who found her head… of Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape and the rumors that he was a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton’s character in The Rocketeer is based on this version of Flynn, if you didn’t know)… and most shockingly to me, at that time anyhow, of silent-era comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for raping a woman with a Coke bottle, causing so much internal damage that she subsequently died. (I don’t know why the Coke bottle thing troubled me more than the gory mental images of Valez or Jayne Mansfield, but I remember that it did.)

Hollywood Babylon outraged me when I read it. Not because its stories were taboo or breaking down the glamorous facade of the movies’ golden age, but because it was just so damn mean-spirited. Something about the tone of the writing suggested that Anger was having a good laugh at the thought of all those pretty people being cut down to size, and he wanted the reader to have one too. And if you were shocked instead of amused, well… Anger struck me as the sort of smirking asshole who would just laugh harder and louder. I’ve never had much use for the provocateur types who get off on riling people up just to see if they can.

Moreover, I had a hunch that a lot of what I was reading in that book was horseshit. Even in my teen years, when I was admittedly naive about, well, everything, Babylon smelled off to me. And yet I knew that many of the stories Anger told were out there in the culture, accepted by people who either didn’t know better or wanted to believe the worst about all those immoral movie folk. And that made me angry, too.

The whole experience of reading that book was highly unpleasant, and I very quickly got rid of the damn thing, after which I took a long shower.

Now, getting back to You Must Remember This, the latest season of the podcast, titled “Fake News,” is dedicated to refuting Hollywood Babylon, or at least pointing out the places where Anger exaggerated or insinuated things that aren’t supported by facts, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weirdly vindicating to hear this stuff, as if some great injustice is finally being corrected, even though the urban legends promulgated by Anger have been debunked before in various places. Besides, like I said earlier, these stories, the real stories, are just plain interesting.

You can listen to You Must Remember This yourself through the official website or iTunes, or I imagine any place else you go to hear podcasts, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s a great show.

And no, Fatty Arbuckle did not rape Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The autopsy showed no evidence of a sexual assault, and Arbuckle was acquitted. Not that that saved his career, sadly…

spacer

Tarantino on Hitchcock

From a two-year-old interview with Quentin Tarantino:

“People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.

I always knew my sensibilities were incompatible with this guy’s, even if he does know how to compose a nice shot.

spacer

Movie Meme 2.0

sunset-blvd-gif

I’ve discovered that that meme I did earlier was actually truncated from a longer one, so I’m… doing it again. Because I’m like that. Oh, and I’m also changing a few of my answers. Because I’m also like that.

  • Most Hated Movie: Star Trek (2009)
  • Movie I Think Is Overrated: Interstellar
  • Movie I Think Is Underrated: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  • Movie I Love: American Graffiti
  • Movie I Secretly Love: Young Guns 2
  • Favorite Action Movie: Die Hard
  • Favorite Drama Movie: Casablanca
  • Favorite Western Movie: Dances with Wolves
  • Favorite Horror Movie: The Fog (1980 version)
  • Favorite Comedy Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Favorite Romance: Pretty Woman
  • Favorite Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Yes, I am fussy enough to differentiate between the LOTR films! For me, the first is the most, well, magical… )
  • Favorite Disney Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner
  • Favorite Book-to-Movie Adaptation: The Shawshank Redemption
  • Favorite Animated Movie: The Incredibles
  • Favorite Superhero Movie: Superman: The Movie
  • Favorite War Movie: The Guns of Navarone
  • Favorite Thriller: Rear Window
  • Favorite Cop Movie: Dirty Harry
  • Favorite Musical: Rock of Ages
  • Favorite Chop-Socky: Rumble in the Bronx
  • Favorite Documentary: Man on Wire
  • Favorite Bad Movie: Flash Gordon (1980 version)
  • Childhood Favorite: Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version)
  • Favorite Franchise: Star Wars
  • Best Trilogy: Back to the Future
  • Guilty Pleasure: Bring It On
  • Favorite Director: Steven Spielberg (although he’s been pretty hit-and-miss ever since Schindler’s List)
  • Favorite Actor: Patrick Stewart
  • Favorite Actress: (tie): Scarlet Johansson / Dame Judi Dench
  • Favorite Movie This Year So Far: Logan
  • Movie I Have Recently Seen: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • What I Thought of It: Enjoyable, but it doesn’t develop Cedric Diggory enough to care when he dies.
  • Favorite Movie of All Time: Star Wars (a.k.a., “Episode IV: A New Hope,” pre-Special Edition version)

 

For the record, this is harder than you might think. I had the devil’s own time with the romance category, for instance, because it’s not a genre that usually appeals to me, and movies I find very romantic — Blaze, for example — usually don’t fit other people’s definitions of romance. And honestly, I don’t really have a favorite director, actor, or actress; the ones I listed are just the ones I thought of whose work I generally (but not always) enjoy. Truth is, there are many directors, actors, and actresses I like.

For the record.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

spacer

Movie Meme

Because I need the pointless distraction this morning:

Most Hated Movie: Star Trek (2009)
Movie I Think Is Overrated: Interstellar
Movie I Think Is Underrated: The Black Hole
Movie I Love: American Graffiti
Movie I Secretly Love: Young Guns 2
Favorite Action Movie: Die Hard
Favorite Drama Movie: The Big Chill
Favorite Western Movie: Dances with Wolves
Favorite Horror Movie: The Fog (1980 version)
Favorite Comedy Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Favorite Disney Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner
Favorite Animated Movie: The Incredibles
Favorite Superhero Movie: Superman: The Movie
Favorite Musical: Rock of Ages
Favorite Bad Movie: Darkman
Childhood Favorite: Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version)
Favorite Franchise: Star Wars
Best Trilogy: Back to the Future
Guilty Pleasure: Bring It On
Favorite Movie This Year So Far: Logan
Movie I Have Recently Seen: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
What I Thought of It: Enjoyable, but doesn’t develop Cedric Diggory enough to care when he dies.
Favorite Movie of All Time: Star Wars (pre-Special Edition)

Save

spacer

Giving Letterboxd a Try

I need another social-networking site eating up my already limited free time like I need a hole in the head. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to give Letterboxd a go after learning about it on Michael May’s Adventureblog. It appears to be along the lines of Goodreads, only for movies. So, if you have some voyeuristic need to explore my dubious tastes in cinema, hop on over to my profile and take a look around…

 

 

 

spacer

The Evolution of The Face

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the face of Michael Myers, the unstoppable boogeyman of the Halloween films, is actually William Shatner’s.

According to lore, the makers of the original Halloween bought a Captain Kirk mask at the local drugstore for a couple bucks, modified it a bit, and spray-painted it white. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history, as that film went on to become one of the most successful horror flicks ever made (it was the most successful for several decades), spawning a slew of sequels, imitators, and outright rip-offs, while the Michael Myers character became an icon. Personally, I think part of the reason why Michael is so unsettling is because that blank, expressionless visage is so weirdly… familiar. But even knowing why he looks familiar, I’ve had trouble actually seeing my boyhood hero in that face of evil.

Not any more:

halloween_shatner-to-michael

It’s even more unsettling now.

Just something to ponder as Halloween 2016 winds down…

spacer
spacer

Quick Take: Sing Street

sing-street_cast-hero-walkI feel like I’m late for the party on Sing Street, as it’s been making its way around the U.S. since April, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, take my word for it: you will. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

An Irish import filmed in Dublin, Sing Street is a rare cinematic treasure: a movie that is both joyous and poignant, fanciful and authentic, with an ending that is exactly what you need it to be without it feeling predictable. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who forms a band to impress a girl and escape from the grim realities of his daily existence, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the mid 1980s and the synth-pop music videos that dominated MTV at the time. It’s also a slice-of-life picture about a gritty urban school milieu that is no more. It’s a comedy-drama about brothers and brothers in arms, as well as the struggle to find yourself in spite of the petty bullies who want to squash your spirit. And it’s a clear-eyed depiction of young romance. Mostly it’s about that time in everyone’s life when you feel both hope and disappointment more keenly than you ever have before and ever will again.

This is the kind of movie I sometimes see and think “I wish I’d written this,” while secretly fearing that I don’t have enough talent to pull it off, at least not this well. The music is great and the evocation of 1985 is spot-on, as is the casting. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers in which the actors actually look like teenagers. And I’ve got to say that Lucy Boynton, who plays the mysterious older girl who claims to be a model and catalyzes the entire plot, is some kind of amazing. When I was a teenager, I’d have become a musician for her myself.

Sing Street is charming on every level. Don’t miss it.

Oh, one final note: the makers of this movie must’ve cleaned out every vintage clothing store in the UK to find all that acid-wash. Wow…

 

Save

spacer

“You Just Pity Him and Get on with Your Life.”

I wasn’t inclined to see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or as I like to call it, The Super-Bat Showdown Show) from the very beginning. For one thing, the movie’s premise was obviously cribbed, at least in part, from The Dark Knight Returns, the hugely influential 1986 graphic novel by Frank Miller that I’ve never especially cared for. Yes, I know, I know… that’s heresy to the comic-book faithful. But I never claimed to be a full-fledged member of that particular cult. More of a dilettante hovering around the fringes and talking a good game. As for the color-desaturated visual style and the bleak, humorless, self-important tone that has come to define Warner Brothers’ film versions of DC Comics’ flagship characters in the post-Christopher Nolan era… well, let’s just say that’s not to my taste either. Contrast those dour slogs to the Marvel movies, whose characters also wrestle with questions of responsibility, power, and personal demons but somehow still manage to spare a moment or two to actually enjoy being superheroes. I mean, come on… part of the appeal of the entire superhero genre is wish-fulfillment. If you could fly or lift cars over your head or were effectively immortal, don’t you think there would be times, at least once in a while, when you’d just break out in an enormous grin because of the sheer awesomeness of what you’re capable of doing? And then there’s the whole matter of bright colors being more pleasing to the eye…

Still… I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I’d probably catch The Super-Bat Show eventually, maybe a few years from now when I stumble across it on television some Saturday afternoon. But after sampling the seemingly endless stream of bad reviews and even worse word-of-mouth over the past couple weeks, I’ve decided to not only not rush out to see this movie, but to actively avoid it. I suspect I’m receiving more entertainment from the bad reviews and rants I’ve been reading than the film itself could ever provide me

However, in all that tremendous, rushing torrent of boiling-white snark, disappointment, anger, and occasional cogent analysis of where, exactly, director Zack Snyder went wrong, there was one comment, one metaphor, that has really stood out for me, one that really encapsulates my sense of malaise over the whole Warner/DC thing. It comes from the writer Jayme Lynn Blaschke:

Once all is said and done, I can’t even bring myself to despise Batman v. Superman the way I do Man of Steel. The latter has an arrogant contempt for the source material that is simply wrong. This one… Batman v Superman is a hapless kid who sits in the back of the class and eats paste all day. You can’t hate that. You just pity him and get on with your life.

Like the fanboys writing into the old letter-to-the-editors column used to say, “Make mine Marvel!”

spacer

My, How Times Change…

elvis_follow-that-dreamThat beautiful weekend I was looking forward to Friday evening turned into a gray and rainy Sunday afternoon… the perfect time to watch an Elvis movie on television, just like when I was a kid!

Now, now, don’t be mean! While it’s true that Elvis Presley’s cinematic oeuvre is not exactly, shall we say, challenging fare, his movies, especially the earlier ones made before Elvis himself got bored with them, are reliably harmless entertainment that really is perfect for leaving on in the background while you do other things. In recent years, I’ve become rather fond of them and the cheerful escapism they offer. Sometimes, though, the world they depict seems so very far away from our own that it may as well be some alien planet in a science-fiction flick.

Consider the set-up of today’s selection, Follow That Dream from 1962. Elvis plays a member of a vagabond family that decides to homestead a patch of Florida land where their car just happens to run out of gas. It’s stated early on that Elvis’ character receives a disability check from the Army on account of a bad back, which he shrugs off as he lifts the car over an obstacle in the road(!). Later, as he’s explaining his relationship to the other family members, he mentions that a pair of twin boys aren’t really his brothers, they’re distant cousins that he and his father took in after their parents died, in part because they came with benefit checks of their own. So, to reiterate, Elvis’ character is a welfare cheat and a homeless squatter who uses children to increase the monthly take! And all this is played for laughs, presented to the audience as if it’s cute and quirky, and maybe even heroic, i.e., if the government is dumb enough to keep mailing those checks, why shouldn’t the family be cashing them?

Remember, this movie was made in 1962.

I just kept thinking that today, a half-century later, a whole lot of people would be calling for this family of cheating bums to be tossed over Trump’s Wall into Mexico, or worse… because if there’s one thing that our society no longer tolerates, let alone smiles about, it’s people on welfare, especially if there’s any hint that they’re gaming the system. Which is funny, because we have no problem with the robber barons in the financial sector gaming that system at everybody else’s expense. I don’t think this movie could even be made today, to be honest, or, if it was, it would have a very different spin on the scenario…

spacer