Saturday, February 29, 2020

Love Story (1970)

Saturday is "Take Out the Trash" Day. And it's the last day of the Valentine Month.

Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970) What can you say about a 50 year old movie that manages to stay alive, despite being so much of its time? That it's maudlin, and saccharin, completely apolitical in a time of radicals, shamelessly tear-jerky, and ridiculously dishonest in its treatment of disease? That its success was completely manufactured by a marketing strategy so Machiavellian that it belied any of the inspiration that might go along with a phenomenon? That, what looked like a delicate butterfly to those enthralled with it, actually more resembled one of Disney's hippoes in a tutu.

Yeah, yeah. But, damn it, it works. (sob!)

At least, it did on me when it was first released.

Truth is, Love Story started as a screenplay that Erich Segal sold to Paramount.  Producer Robert Evans (to whom the credit for its success must assuredly go, as it was, literally, "a labor of love" for his then girl-friend Ali MacGraw). It was a low-budget film with no "buzz" and Segal was encouraged to write a "tie-in" novel to help boost its caché. Released on Valentine's Day, and bolstered by studio-engineered "block-buying," it made the New York Times Bestseller List, and, being slight and written in a punchy, simple style, mushroomed to become a "thing." The success of the movie was almost a sure-thing.
With the passage of time, the "phenom" aspect of it has disappeared and one can look at it without much prejudiceArthur Hiller's direction is largely inelegant, combining a "caught-on-the-fly" feeling that was popular in the motorcycle-wake of Easy Rider (but without the pretentious editing tricks) with television style blocking. The film hinges on a score by Francis Lai (A Man and a Woman) that is used for a few "frolic-in-love" scenes. The acting varies in quality from professional turns by veterans Ray Milland and John Marley to the "do as little as possible and just be sincere" performance by Ryan O'Neal, and a functional one by Ali MacGraw, that started to show the cracks in her abilities that weren't apparent in Goodbye, Columbus.* 
Still, it jerks tears...if one has lost or (and probably more importantly) if one has not.  Imagined grief can sometimes be more powerful than the actual if one lives in a fantasy-world. Anyone who has lost someone to a lingering disease will be a bit perplexed by this aspect of Love Story and could righteously yell "bullshit." Roger Ebert went so far as to call what heroine Jenny succumbs to as "Ali MacGraw Disease" ("Movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches"). Movie Magic in Hollywood. "She's going. I need pancake make-up STAT"
But, the part the most galling aspect of Love Story—The Book! The Movie!  The Phenomenon!—to me, personally, is its bracketing tag-line—"Love means never having to say you're sorry"—which would make a great Hallmark card if it wasn't such crap.** It would be easy if love meant never having to say you're sorry (certainly, it would be nice if it meant never having to say you're sorry that you've loved!) But the fact of the matter is that, if you're doing it right...or really means saying you're sorry. It's common courtesy. And hopefully, you learn from having to say it, to change the behavior that demands an apology. Love cares. Love accommodates. Love humbles. And ('cause the Bible tells us so) love never dies.
Not in the real world.

* MacGraw and O'Neal were nominated for Oscars for Best Lead Performances that season, which seems less to do with merit than with studio electioneering. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, but only won one...for Lai's score. It was Patton's year that year (and I'd argue that Jerry Goldsmith's lean score for that film has had more importance, both to its film and the legacy of film music, than Lai's). But, in a year of Patton, Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H, Woodstock, Let It Be, The Great White Hope, Women in Love, and Ryan's Daughter, it's a little difficult to see how Love Story could compete on any level. 

** Just found an article where even MacGraw says "it makes no sense."
From Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc?

Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus (Larry Peerce,1969) In my early, stuttering days seeing as many movies as I could, I watched this Paramount production of Philip Roth's 1959 novella on television (ABC Network, I think). I remember it being a bit bewildering for there would be whole stretches of film that would be frozen on an image while the soundtrack remained intact. I don't recall hitting my portable television to see if there was a broadcast issue—in those days, I would have adjusted the "rabbit-ears"—but it was a little frustrating. Frustrating enough that I bought the book to see if I could find out what was going on (I should also mention this was pre-home video/VHS-Beta/DVD/streaming or any of that, which occurred with a big roll-out in 1980). "Buying the book" was what I did whenever these things happened, a tried-and-true researching method that I'd employed ever since watching 2001: A Space Odyssey bent my 13 year old brain into incomprehension.

For Goodbye, Columbus, however, the issue was ABC censorship, as those frozen scenes involved the lead characters—played by Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw—indulging in pre-marital sex and some rather PG-13-ish nudity (Benjamin's, actually). It made me read the book (which didn't explain what was going on but gave me more depth into the characters) and started my appreciation of the work of Philip Roth and I proceeded to binge his books like they were a tube of Oreo's.
This is one of the shots ABC censored
MacGraw was a big star at the time (but not at the time this movie was released) and Paramount was the King of Hollywood with The Godfather and Love Story being popular and critic-approved and it marshaled in the very good movie decade of the 1970's with some seriously good fare. Goodbye, Columbus did well for its time and it was MacGraw's very brush with stardom after modeling and her performance here is actually quite good and vulnerable, but Benjamin has the true actor honors in this one, with a good turn by Jack Klugman, as well.
This is another...personally, they're SFW
Goodbye, Columbus takes place over six months in New York as Neil Klugman (Benjamin—and no relation to Jack...), mid-20's and slightly adrift after graduating from college (English lit. major) and a military stint has taken a job at the New York Public Library (I'm going over the film scenario, not the novella as novella-Neil lives and works in Newark, New Jersey). Taking advantage of cousin Doris' membership at Old Oaks Country Club (Purchase, New York), Neil's life changes despite the non-New York-based pleasures of sun-bathing, swimming and scanning swim-suited bodies in the sunshine. It's a privilege for Neal to be among the privileged, and has no idea that he will be beguiled by the simplest of siren's songs—"Would you hold my glasses, please?"
The inquiry is made by Brenda Patimkin (MacGraw), who then jumps into the pool, while being bird-dogged by Neil, who is then swept away from him by a large male, who tell her it's time to go, takes her hand and accompanies her from the club. Neil finds out who she is (and, subsequently, that the guy who took her from is her brother) and he becomes obsessed with meeting her again and pursuing her. He gets her number and they have a meeting after her tennis match with a friend. And the next day, Neil gets invited to the country club as Brenda's guest.
Love blooms. Dates happen. Music-backed montages ensue (music by Charles Fox in his chirpy "Love, America-Style" mode). Brenda and Neil become a "thing." He gets invited to the Patimkins for dinner ("He eats like a bird!"). Dad Ben (Klugman—Jack) has a plumbing supply business that is doing very well, which is what has propelled the Patimkins into the lifestyle to which they become accustomed, but have not always enjoyed. Mother Patimkin (Nan Martin) is cordial, but a bit cold, especially given Neil's job—he's been at the Library for a year! But, Dad isn't concerned—"Leave her alone, she'll get tired of him."
He's so unconcerned that, at Brenda's request, Neil is allowed to stay with the Patimkins for a couple weeks, while the family is preoccupied with brother Ron's upcoming wedding. Mom is absolutely against the idea—she and Brenda have their mom-daughter conflicts and she's seen as spoiled. But, for Dad, things are going great and the kids are great, so why not? Brenda has Ben wrapped around her finger and so, Mom's concerns aside, Neil is welcomed. To a point.
For the lovers, this is a opportunity to take advantage of. They start to regularly sleep together under the Patimkins' collective noses. But, the differences between the two become apparent leading to conflict—Neil insists on some sort of birth control (for her, of course), while Brenda prefers nothing. In the novella written in the late 1950's, there was no "pill" but screenwriter Arnold Schulman takes care of the issue by having Brenda say that it makes her bloat "plus, you keep reading something bad about it everyday" (nice deflection that people could identify with and works well with her "princess" personality).
It's one of the areas where Schulman's updating for the fruging 60's works. No mention is made of Vietnam regarding Neil's military service, and the screenplay goes out of its way to stress the "generation gap" between the kids and the parents, sometimes uncomfortably so. One grating area is when Neil visits Ben at his company and the older man states that you need a little "gonif" to survive in business ("You know what that means, 'gonif?'" "Thief"). In the novella, that plays out with a mutual understanding of the ways of the world, but in the film, Ben then goes off on a bitter, deprecating "you kids, you think you have it so easy" speech that comes out of left field.
This little aberration from the novella's text—and intent—as well as the insistence to show the older generation in the worst satirical light (and given that everybody is Jewish gives a further suspicion of "prejudice" or "snobbery"—to be kind) makes one suspicious that the idea was not to follow Roth's work, but to present a box-office cousin to the previous year's The Graduate, with the cross-cutting dance sequences with fast-zooms (which don't communicate anything other than "this is frenetic, man" as opposed to picking out something in the wide shot or creating an emotional "realization" shot) and an exploitable soundtrack featuring a pop-group.
The soundtrack to The Graduate (featuring Simon and Garfunkle) was a best-seller, but I don't think anybody remembers—or bought—the soundtrack to Goodbye, Columbus, featuring The Association, a "safe" easy-listening vocal group (akin to the Four Freshmen) 180 degrees in opposition to the folk-rock harmonies of S&G, their only similarity being both groups played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Where S&G voiced the angst of a generation, The Association could have played the Patimkin wedding, so unoffensive and mainstream was their music. Actually, the way Peerce goes over-the-top in the staging of thewedding sequence, unoffenisve might not be what they'd be going after.
My view of Goodbye, Columbus has changed over the years—actually it changed quite quickly after I saw the whole movie, given the reading of Roth's original story. What Roth was going for was a comment on assimilation and how the gentrification of class destroys common threads in people no matter how tightly bound. And he couched this in a love story—but is it really?—where privilege breaks down with the danger of losing it. I've always loved the final argument between Brenda and Neil that dances around the basic point that he's not a good match for her, given his lack of ambition, and the parental pressures put on her so that she can maintain her privilege. Princesses do not marry below their stature. It is just not done. But, that is never said. It all revolves around circumstantial evidence and past sins and is straight out of Roth. Summer love cannot stand the Winter chill. 
But, Benjamin is great in it, and he would become tagged as the actor to go to when portraying a Roth character. But, I was dissatisfied enough to want to see another adaptation that was more like the original story, maybe a period piece set in the late 1950's as it was written—its own thing and not a knock-off of passing trends.
MacGraw and Benjamin, already facing the other way.
* Wikipedia calls them "a sunshine-pop band from California." So, naturally that works for a movie set in New York. I don't think Paramount was so inspired by The Graduate that they said "Hey, The Graduate was set in California and used a duo out of New York! Let's use the same geographical inappropriateness!" They just wanted to sell records.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

An Affair to Remember (1957)

An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957) I'm of two minds about An Affair To Remember, which is as it should be, as it's two movies: the deft romantic comedy on-board ship and the maudlin tragedy with musical numbers (by a kid's chorus)—not one of my favorite genres! The first part is terrific, and the second part is insufferable, at least to me, and shows the best and worst of director Leo McCarey.

Let's start with the good stuff, shall we?
Two co-dependents, a gigolo and a "kept woman," meet on board a cruise that in practicality and the metaphoric sense represent escape from a pair of disastrous relationships. They "meet cute," and spend the rest of their cruise trying to avoid each other in public, as he's an infamous playboy and she's just trying to maintain her reputation. It's a neat little cinematic problem (filmed in cruise-ship-length Cinemascope). They resolve to 1) jilt their lovers and their dependent life-styles and 2) vow to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months or once they're on their feet (ironic turn of phrase, that).

This part of the film is great fun because it's light and airy and features two performers who could do romantic comedy like no other (McCarey solidified Cary Grant as "Cary Grant" in the film The Awful Truth), and reflected the circumstances of filming. Grant is perfectly matched with Deborah Kerr, whose reputation as a comedienne has historically been given short-shrift. Here, the two characters conspire to meet in the close quarters of the ship, while avoiding detection by the nosey passengers. In real-life Grant and Kerr got on like a house-afire: Grant was nursing a broken-heart at the time of filming, and Kerr was a fellow British ex-pat with his sense of home and humor. You can see the chemistry between the two—at one point, Kerr flubs a line and the two don't break the scene, leaving Grant with a delighted look on his face, and Kerr making it feel like real-life. When they're separated as they leave the boat, the movie no longer floats, but founders with melodrama and tragedy.
McCarey (who directed Duck Soup) falls back on an old Marx Bros. solution: to give the audience a little breathing room, throw in a few songs (a tactic that Groucho famously harpooned in Horse Feathers when he addresses the audience: "I have to stay here, but there's no reason you folks can't go to the lobby 'til this blows over.").
I'm even more cynical about this section of the film for a number of reasons, both having to do with McCarey. An Affair To Remember is a remake of McCarey's earlier Love Affair (1939, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer),* and except for the wide-screen color photography and the songs nothing much changed, although it's easier to see Boyer as a European playboy (trying to pass off Cary Grant as Italian, is about as successful as passing him off as an American). Watching the film, McCarey's first after a couple of anti-communist propaganda pieces (You Can Change the World and My Son John), one begins to see it as McCarey's Pension Guarantee. He wears all the hats: co-writer, producer, director and—the part that rankles a bit—lyricist for all the Harry Warren songs in the film's last half. Nice gig that he hired himself for. And if any of those songs became a hit, he had money from the residuals for life.
I don't begrudge McCarey's double-dipping—this happened quite a bit in Hollywood when a producer could get away with it,** but one wonders--with a co-lyricist credited--just how much McCarey contributed to the songs. Me, I want to head for the lobby when the orchestra starts up (especially for such enduring classics as "TomorrowLand" and "The Tiny Scout," which lie at the bottom of Warren's prolific, accomplished output). They're padding, and prolong the wait to the inevitable reunion (which is given remarkably short-shrift) at the movie's end.
Also, there is a moment of revelation in An Affair to Remember that, hard to admit, is just beyond the considerable acting abilities of Cary Grant to pull off. McCarey blows that moment by leaving his camera on Grant the entire time when a cut-away (to what he's looking at) might have provided more dramatic weight (merely by the editing) to Grant's angst. Long takes are great, but there's an absence of information here that hurts the scene and what it's trying to convey. That we are also unprepared for that revelation by any fore-shadowing compounds the error.
And it is a mistake. In planning and execution.***
One still seeks out McCarey films...especially the chance to see the film that didn't win the Academy Award for Best Picture (and he felt should have) the year The Awful Truth did—the sad and melancholy Make Way for Tomorrow (which Orson Welles called "the saddest movie ever made"—and this was said in the complimentary way possible). You want a movie that's a love story that tugs at your heart-strings? That one is it. Criterion released it in 2010, after it had languished in obscurity for decades.

* It was remade again, using the original title, by producer Warren Beatty and director Glenn Gordon Caron with Beatty, Annette Bening and Katharine Hepburn (in her last role) as Beatty's grandmother. The material about a lifelong lothario meeting the woman whom he chooses to settle down with, only to be separated by tragedy must have seemed particularly poignant to Beatty.

** Here's a nasty one: "The Theme from Star Trek." Written by Alexander Courage for the original series, producer Gene Roddenberry then penned completely unnecessary lyrics (beyond the South Sea Island "Aaa-aah's"), merely to skim half the proceeds from Courage's pay-check to himself. Nice guy. But he had the power to do he did.

*** Looking at it again—could it just have been that the Cinemascope frame ratio didn't allow for the standing Grant to share the frame with the prone Kerr without it looking awkward with a lot of negative space in the frame? Yeah, let's be nice and go with that.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: Out of Africa

The Story: "I had a farm in Africa."

It's the first line of the screenplay, and it will become a mantra throughout the movie, repeated and expanded the way Karen Blixen (under her pen-name Isak Dinesen) does in her book.

But, the "had" is an issue. 

Blixen goes through many transitions throughout the movie, but the hardest one for her to learn is the one most imperialists need to address. She arrives in Africa from Denmark with wolfhounds and furnishings in tow and immediately tries to "civilize" her 1000 acres, making it a farm. That is her intent. She will make something of her plot of land and make it productive, because that is as it should be. That is the natural order of things.

Well, maybe in Denmark, but, as her lover Denys Finch Hatton points out, Africa was doing just fine without her. Finch Hatton was a free-ranger. He owned property, but after awhile he was barely there and sold it. He started out as a big-game hunter, but, over time, his safaris turned to photography, which he encouraged in his clients. In the film there is a running argument, where Finch Hatton tries to impart that, although she's bought property, Blixen does not really own her part of Africa. It is only when circumstances force her to abandon her farm, that she begins to come to the same conclusion. "The farm never belonged to me," she concludes. "I may have been wrong," he replies, maybe charitably.

Which is where director Sidney Pollack comes in, as he became aware while making it that the story was about possession and its viability in the wild spaces.

But, it's not just the land.

Possession comes down to relationships, too. Society formalizes it, ceremonializes it. One can always "put a ring on it," but, even the ring is not attached. We stay by choice. But, we don't "own" anybody, we don't possess them, putting a name to it like "love," not free spirits and not individuals. 

We are alone, walking apart until we walk together, in sync.

That may be why this scene always produces tears for me (I was a wreck putting this together!) when Karen Blixen realizes—finally and concretely—that one can love (and love all they want, protest to the stars the depth of their affection). But one can never possess. One can never truly have.

That's why we close out February with this scene.

The Set-Up: "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills." Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) has spent 17 years in Africa near Nairobi, Kenya trying to establish a coffee farm on her acquitted 1000 acres. It has been tough going, although she loves the land and its people, and, now, financial straights have forced her to abandon her efforts and return to Denmark. Her lover and companion Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) has agreed to fly her to Mombasa for the first leg of the journey home. But, he is killed in a crash, and Karen has one last tragic duty to attend to in the land she has loved...and lost. 



At the gravesite Karen selected for herself. In the f.g., the three Kkuyu who've dug the grave now stand, move away as far in the b.g. a procession of cars and lorries edges up the hill, stops.

So far away we can't make them out, people debark; men take the coffin from the rear of a truck.
Still QUITE WIDE. Delamere, other men we've seen before, lead the way with the coffin, struggling in the slippery knee-high grass. The minister, perhaps thirty other mourners, Bror and his wife among them.
And Karen, veiled, just behind the coffin. Her stride is steady. She carries a small book.
The coffin is in the ground. Karen nearest the grave, the others haphazard, spread out behind her. At distance, a few Africans.
THE MINISTER: "The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon at night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil." 
THE MINISTER: "He shall preserve thy..." 
THE MINISTER: "...soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out..."
THE MINISTER: "...and thy coming in." 
THE MINISTER: "From this time forth and even forevermore." 
ALL (ragged): Amen.
The minister steps back, looks at Karen. She removes her hat and veil, runs her fingers through her hair. For the first time we see her face: it's gaunt, beautiful. 
Her voice will be low, steady and clear.
KAREN: "The time you won your town the race... we chaired you through the marketplace. Man and boy stood cheering by... as home we brought you, shoulder high." 
Today, the road all runners come...Shoulder-high, we bring you home...and set you at your threshold down...Townsman of a stiller town.

PAN the mourners. Brave men swallow. Women are crying. Tears flow furiously from Bror's eyes; he will not wipe them. Delamere is trembling.
KAREN: "Smart lad, to slip betimes away..." 
KAREN: "...from fields where glory does not stay. Early though the laurel grows... it withers quicker than a rose." 

Felicity buries her face on her father's shoulder. Lady Macmillan's chin is very high. Lady Byrne turns away to stare up the hill. 
And Wasili, alone at distance, watches.
KAREN: "Now you will not swell the rout... of lads that wore their honours out. Runners whom renown outran... and the name died... before the man."
Not a tear. She no longer needs the book.
KAREN: So set, before its echoes fade The fleet foot on the sill of shade And hold to the low lintel up The still-defended challenger cup. "And round that early laurelled head..." 
KAREN: "...will flock to gaze the strengthless dead..." 
KAREN: "...and find unwithered on its curls..." 
KAREN: "a garland..." 
KAREN: "...briefer than a girl's."
Moment. Her voice steadies. She looks up at the hills.
KAREN: Now take back the soul of Denys George Finch Hatton... 
KAREN: ...whom You have shared with us. 
KAREN: He brought us joy... and we loved him well. 
KAREN: He was not ours. 
KAREN:(beat) He was not mine.
She bends to take a handful of earth to drop into the grave. her lips move: we cannot make it out. She may have said: I love you.
But she cannot drop the earth; the gesture is too final. 
It trickles away through her hand. 
She turns to the mourners, looks at them all..and seems to shrug.
She walks away, not towards the cars but down the slope of the hill.
At distance, Farah waits.
She pauses once, to take off her shoes. Far off, she passes by Farah, who turns to follow her down the hill.

Out of Africa

Words by Kurt Luedtke and A.E. Housman ("To an Athlete Dying Young")

Pictures by David Watkin and Sydney Pollack

Out of Africa is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.