Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A [Love] Letter to Elia and Panic in the Streets (1950) at the Brattle

Last Tuesday, Kevin and I got to see the Martin Scorsese documentary, A Letter to Elia, at the Brattle followed by a screening of Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950). I really wanted to write this post last week but I didn't have a chance. I especially wanted to write about it before PBS showed the documentary (last night), but alas life got in the way. If you didn't get a chance to see the documentary last night, no worries. It'll be available in the super ultra mega sexy Elia Kazan Collection that's coming out in November (which I will plonk down hard cash for). And I'm sure PBS will show the documentary again.

In A Letter to Elia, Martin Scorsese delivers a beautiful and touching tribute to Kazan, the director who inspired him and whose work moved him. Scorsese and Kazan became close friends towards the end of Kazan's life. Scorsese made sure that he was by his side when Kazan was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar award at the 1999 Academy Awards. If you remember that ceremony, Kazan got a lot of grief from people in the audience who were still not too happy about his involvement in the HUAC and for ratting out other communists. At this point in the documentary, I got a bit teary eyed. The fact that Scorsese stood by Kazan's side and gave him a big embrace publicly supporting his controversial friend moved me. I really believe that this documentary should have been called A Love Letter to Elia because that is what it was: a love letter directed by Scorsese for Kazan.

Scorsese's love for Kazan and his work goes back far into Scorsese's childhood. As a teenage, he followed Kazan's East of Eden (1955) from cinema to cinema. Scorsese takes the audience through one scene in which the James Dean character visits his mother at a brothel. Having seen this film some time ago, I didn't remember the scene, or even the film, as anything special but when Scorsese broke down the complex layers of the scene, the lighting, the cinematography, the acting, the significance to the plot, all elements that a director would choreograph with his crew, it made East of Eden seem nothing short of genius!

Scorsese's passion for East of Eden made me wonder about what it meant to be a fan of a single film. I mean truly a fan. Then I thought of the films that I "follow". There is Metropolis (1927) which I have seen in various versions, at the HFA, at the Coolidge Corner Theater, at home, on my computer and soon I'll be seeing it again and this time with live musical accompaniment. It's a film I want to keep watching over and over and over again. Then there is Out of the Past (1947). The reason I'm a classic film fan. The inspiration for this blog. The main source of my love for Robert Mitchum. The most confusing yet enchanting film I've ever seen. I've counted the number of cigarettes in the movie, I gave the main character a profile, I've shared it with friends, I've kept it to myself, it's the foundation upon which I build my love for movies.

What I enjoyed about the documentary what that this was Scorsese's personal perspective on the life and work of Elia Kazan. Because this little blog of mine, is all about the personal perspective so I really love it when people share their own. We get to see Kazan through Scorsese's eyes. And because Scorsese had such admiration for the man, we start to develop some admiration for him too. It was fitting that I went to see this with my good friend Kevin who just happens to be a Kazan expert. He gave a lecture about Kazan back in 2007, which I attended and prepared for by doing a marathon of Kazan film viewings. And even though I met Kevin during his Film Noir class, it was really after the Kazan lecture when we started to bond and become friends.

The documentary was followed by a screening of Panic in the Streets (1950), one of my favorite noirs. Keeping in mind some of what Scorsese said about Kazan in the documentary, I paid close attention to details in the film that I could possibly attribute to Kazan. The pacing, the camera angles, the set-up of the shots, the choreography of the final chase scene, etc. Something I noticed in this viewing that I hadn't in past ones, was how the gigantic Jack Palance was positioned over very small and diminutive characters. The contrast exemplified his character's power and the level of control he exerted over everyone around him. Everyone looks up to him, not because he's a good person but because he physically and symbolically towers over them.

I learned recently was that Panic in the Streets is now in the public domain. Which means you can watch the entire film on your computer thanks to Internet Archive. But between you and me, this film, and any other Kazan classic, begs to be seen on the big screen. It's the way Scorsese fell in love with Kazan films and it's really the best way to watch any classic movie.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) at the Coolidge Corner Theater

Last week I got a chance to see the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) on the big screen, at the Coolidge Corner Theater (a pretty amazing Art Deco cinema) with live musical accompaniment by Peter Blanchette. It was a great experience. This was the second of a series called Sounds of Silents that the Coolidge Corner Theater is presenting with the help of several very generous sponsors. They are bringing silent films onto the big screen with live music. How cool is that? Unfortunately, I missed their first event which was the Alloy Orchestra performing with Metropolis (1927).  I really love Metropolis and was very impressed with the Alloy Orchestra when I saw them perform with Phantom of the Opera (1925) on Halloween.

I was not having the best of nights when I went to this. I had gone with a group of friends but I was in a very anti-social mood. After my friends gave me a hard time about seating (I have a weak bladder, I need an aisle seat and they weren't making things easy for me), I escaped for a breather and to go to the bathroom. The lobby was crowded and being in my anti-social mood I wanted to avoid as many people as possible so I tried sneaking into the handicapped bathroom which was away from the lobby. Unfortunately, there was a lovely old couple already occupying the bathroom and I had interrupted an older gentleman helping his wife off the toilet. I was mortified. When I closed the door and I turned around, another man (who may or may not have noticed that I interrupted the couple in said bathroom) saw me and mentioned something about there being other bathrooms downstairs (through the lobby). After a while, I realized that the man who spoke to me was the musician himself. D'oh! Another embarrassment, in a long series of embarrassments and humiliations that had plagued me that day, wasn't making this experience all it could be.

Once the film and the music started, I relaxed a bit. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) is a hilarious film with Buster Keaton at the top of his game. It would be the last film in which Keaton had full creative control. The music was superb, a complex mix of Americana and honky-tonk with everything from electric guitar to mandolin to piano to banjo (this made me think of John & Eberle!). Blanchette mixed recorded music along with live performance (all of the music he performed in one way or another). It was great to watch a silent film in it's original form but accompanied with a whole new and different type of musical style. Before the show started, Blanchette told the audience that when he composes his music for a silent film he thinks about instruments and sounds for each of the characters but he also tries to give the music a unifying theme.

I can't wait to go to future Sounds of Silents and see how other musicians interpret silent films with their music.

If you want to experience Peter Blanchette's musical interpretation of Steamboat Bill, Jr. in your very own home, he's graciously put up some clips on his YouTube channel. Check them out!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Dinner and a Movie: They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

Who cares if it's not historically accurate? It's Errolivia for Pete's Sake. That's box-office gold. ka-ching!

I've been spending some time with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland recently, better known to some as Errolivia. It was quite by accident that I started by watching their last film together, They Died With Their Boots On (1941). (It just happened to be at the top of my Netflix queue). I'm in the middle of reading Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood for review here and while I'm learning lots about them, I'm still a virgin to the whole Errolivia experience. It seems like many have already encountered an Errolivia film or two and know about their dynamic. I had never seen any of the Errolivia films but I have been intrigued ever since I caught a clip of Olivia de Havilland talking about Errol Flynn on TCM. Olivia reminisced about the friendship she had with Errol and how she had written him a letter, telling him how much she had appreciated knowing him and working with him. She didn't get around to mailing the letter before Errol Flynn died in 1959.

I don't want to go too much into Errolivia because 1) I'm still new to this, 2) I haven't finished the book and 3) I've only seen one of their movies. I do want to say that their on-screen chemistry, from what I've seen in They Died With Their Boots On, was not electric but sweet and genuine. Even though Errol Flynn was a terrible womanizer, Olivia de Havilland's softness and gentility seemed to balance him out.

They Died With Their Boots On (1941) is a biopic on General Custer. The screenplay is very VERY loosely based on fact. This film really is all about Errolivia, some tight pants, some big dresses, some guns, lots of onions, and Anthony Quinn in Native American dress. And let's not forget the other star of the show. The one that almost steals the spotlight from Errolivia! Sydney Greenstreet lights up the screen whenever he waltzes into a shot. I was particularly enamored by the scene in which Greenstreet, who plays Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, meets George Custer (Errol Flynn) for the first time. It takes place in a restaurant where Custer has just been served a plate of creamed Bermuda onions, a specialty of the house. Lt. Gn. Scott has been seated at the next table. Scott has a big appetite and orders double-rib sirloin, asparagus, potatoes au gratin, spiced pears and of course, his favorite, creamed Bermuda onions. But alas, they are out of creamed Bermuda onions! What's a man to do? Custer takes a stand, he likes to do that sort of thing, and offers up his plate of creamed Bermuda onions to Scott as a way to introduce himself to the Lt. Gn., get on his good side and perhaps use the opportunity to move up in ranks in the army. Custer and Scott have dinner together, bond over work and onions and the rest is movie-generated "history".

I decided to make the meal that Lieutenant General Scott ordered at the restaurant. However, double-rib sirloin would have made the meal a tad expensive, so I replaced it with good ole roasted chicken. And this is what the meal looked like! Chicken, with a generous helping of Green onions (Custer/Flynn LOVED his green onions), roasted asparagus with lemon zest, Potatoes au gratin and spiced pears poached in red wine. I also made a casserole of creamed pearl onions with breadcrumb topping. Carlos and I tried the onions and neither of us were terribly impressed. If we had encountered Sydney Greenstreet, we would have gladly offered him our plates of onions too!

If you'd like to make this entire dinner (or a portion of it), make sure you stop by my food blog, Thoughtful Eating, for the recipes.

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