Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Magic of Christmas (Movies)

I have struggled with finding a topic for this week's post, as is probably abundantly clear beings that it is now Saturday. I toyed with the idea of reviewing or paying homage to one of the many Christmas movies that I have watched over the holiday break, but then I thought, "Which one?" There are so many classics: A Miracle on 34th Street (above), A Christmas Story, The Bishop's Wife, Christmas Vacation.... So many timeless gems. In all my viewing, it occurred to me that the only way to ensure that a film become an instant classic is to make it about the most festive and heart-warming of all holidays. This genre never gets old!

I could watch Christmas in Connecticut or one of the many versions of A Christmas Carol (1951 version- above) over and over again... and I do! Every year! Why is that? Why does It's A Wonderful Life continue to enchant me, even when I mouth George Bailey's every word verbatim? Everyone has a favorite film, one that they hold above all others, and which witnesses more wear and tear than the others in his or her collection, but while personal tastes differ, a soft spot for Christmas seems to be something that we all share. Whereas you may have to twist a friend or lover's arm to watch Bridget Jones's Diary or Die Hard for the 100th time, when it hits the end of December, people gather around the TV without protestation, ready to witness the re-telling of a story they know like the back of their hand.

That is perhaps the-- forgive the sentiment-- "magic" of the season. Families and friends spend all year long in separate locations and time zones, surrounded by strangers and work colleagues, and running on the treadmill of the never-ending rat race. The isolation we experience 364 days a year, and our chosen self-absorption, comes to a screeching halt but once a year. We take a vacation from the "daily grind" or the "daily grill, " take a breath, and pause to remember what it is we are rushing around for. Each other. My family is comprised of strong, interesting individuals. We are all off on our own different paths, waging personal battles and tackling different ambitions, but when the annual time comes to re-form our "team," there is a reassurance and strength. The knowledge that you are not alone, is a powerful thing.

While having family gatherings at this time of year presents its own kind of chaos-- family bickering, food malfunctions, social dysfunctions-- at the end of the day, I think we can all take a quiet moment to look at the people around us and find a moment of pride at our roots and the peace that follows. Since many of us (including myself) find trouble communicating our feelings to others, movies do it for us. Gathered before the fire or Christmas tree, watching a faithful Xmas film, we are joined. Whether we are witnessing the story of Scrooge's transformation from a Humbug to a Benefactor, or Ralphie's (above in A Christmas Story) longed for union with his desired bee bee gun, the underlying theme is "family." Whether that family consists of blood relatives or the chosen compatriots you have learned to care for more than yourself, the one gift that everyone seems able to agree on as the most important is that of love.

Bing Crosby finds love with Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas (below), the love of children saves Frosty the Snowman, and Love, Actually actually is all about love and how it tears us apart and pulls us all back together again. We allow ourselves one measly time a year to recognize this fact. One moment to be sentimental without seeming too sensitive, to watch an emotional and evocative film without having to bear the shame of watching a "chick flick." Whether loved ones prefer comedies, actions films, horror films... whether they fail to agree on a movie for movie night all year long, on Christmas the only argument seems to be: "Which should we watch first!?"

So, as the year comes to an end, we pop in a dvd that reminds us of old times and awakens aged memories, and we prepare for a whole new year of life and experience. The good news is, after another exhausting year is spent, we will always have a welcome cinematic embrace to enfold us next December. We have all prepared ourselves to kiss 2009 goodbye, and in a few days we will be kissing 2010 hello. The familiar oldies of film make the passing of time more tolerable, because we can always go back. You can go home again, at least for the holidays, if only for two hours.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and I wish you the best for the coming year!!! Keep the movies rolling :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Separation of Church and State???

Nelson de la Nuez's "The Last Happy Meal"

In the midst of this holiday season, as Christmas inches closer and closer, why not take a moment to investigate the birthday boy, Jesus Christ? Whether or not he performed miracles, he did manage to create the longest running annual celebration-- take that, Dick Clark! RIP to you bothy, BTW. Sorry, I kid. Anywho, back to JC: Millennia after his death, no one remains as famous nor as controversial as the "Son" himself. His likeness, or rather artists' rendering of it, which is fairly consistent, is as recognizable as the face of Marilyn Monroe, his name is as familiar as Elvis Presley, and conversation regarding the religious branch he inspired remains as dominant as the latest tribulations of whatever celebrity newsstand martyr. Perhaps to some, it seems heretical for me to make such comparisons between pop culture and the most dominant of religious icons, but I do it merely to illuminate a point: in the history of the world, on the scale of social impact and cultural relevance, Madonna has nothing on Jesus.

Oh, Religion... The topic we all have such strong opinions and convictions about is the one we just can't make peace with. When it comes to God and Man, we are so damn touchy. If you believe in God, you're a desperate fool who needs fairy tales to cope with reality; if you don't, you're a spiritually blind ignoramus who is going to burn in Hell or, at the very least, surrender your chance to spend eternity with infinite vestal virgins-- who I assume will be sent to said Hell after they are soiled by celestial semen. (Wow, I am really digging my own grave here). There is nothing-- sans politics and how the government spends our money-- that sparks such heated debate or arouses such defensive anger as religion, even while the argument itself is a moot endeavor. The scientist's findings are shunned by infinite, unseen possibilities of the faithful, and the faithful prayers and proverbs are not functional to the scientist.

As such, God is everywhere: as a concept or a symbol, as a source of dissension or unity. He is at the center of massive wars abroad and theological ones at home. Since cinema is one of the most far-reaching arms of the media, along with television and radio-- do we still call it radio?-- it is no surprise that the topic of religion should find its way time and again onto the silver screen. Each time, it takes on different forms, asks different questions, and reveals each time different truths about its current society. It seems ironic that in the world of movies, where we indulge in images of graphic, senseless violence, gratuitous sex, and eye-opening, intellectually penetrating films about every topic in the political/social spectrum, "Jesus" is the only subject that truly makes people squirm.The most recent and publicly acknowledged "Yes, yes, yes," vs. "No, no, no" battle took place over Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ of 2004. Maybe you've heard of it.

The argument over this particular film was that it was created with an anti-Semitic agenda by Gibson who shamelessly used his artistic power, fame, and personal fortune to promote his own faith and lambast that of others-- particularly those of the Jewish faith. Half of the public, in general those of the Christian persuasion, embraced the film, which broke box-office records, and reported that it was a devoted and inspiring portrait of Christ the King. The other half of the public stood outside movie theaters with signs of protest (protestants? Haha. Sorry) defaming the picture, defending other religious demographics, and lambasting the heinous scenes of violence, which they believed contradicted the film's supposed message of spiritual enlightenment. For those of us towing a middle line, trying to find an unbiased opinion and survive the ever-absurd anarchy, there wasn't much to do but sit back and say, well... "Jesus..." One wonders if the film would have been as significant if so many hadn't risen up against it and thus forced others to manically defend it. "Oh, Mel made a movie about Jesus? Ok." That was my response. It pretty much still is. Though, I admit that my passive demeanor may itself be a sin.

I am admittedly not well educated on religion. I remember attending some early CCD classes-- still not sure what that stands for-- and collecting what appeared to be Jesus trading cards. I had and have no qualms with Jesus. The concept of God fascinates me, mostly in terms of witnessing the different ways people choose to interpret "Him" and allow him to enrich/direct their lives. Unfortunately, religion is yet another theology that at heart is meant to unify and-- when placed in the hands of the men and women who preach it-- most often becomes ineffectual, misconstrued, and then ignorantly turns brother against brother. Still, I approach the appearance of different versions of religious propaganda with an open mind and objective eye, at least I'd like to think so. Our diversity is one of the greatest things about us. I'm not opposed to hearing both versions of, any version of, any story, even if the discussion introduced makes you wrinkle your nose. Bring it on. Let's cleanse the palate. Due to this ever churning curiosity, I did eventually see the movie.

No, I wasn't instantaneously "offended" that Gibson produced his passion project. However, this is probably because I'm very anti-censorship at heart. Any time you are compelled to step in and say, "No, you aren't allowed to say/do this," things get dicey. Deciding what is righteous from what is unrighteous is not something man has ever been good at. We generally just turn ourselves into self-righteous jerks. "Say your piece, man. I don't concur, but I appreciate the info." History also tells us that persecution necessarily creates martyrs, so this time it was Mel who wound up on the cross-- at least until he took himself down with those strange hieroglyphic rants he made after his visit to Moonshadows. [Hand slaps forehead, RIP Martin Riggs]. Before Mel proved the hypothetical agenda many thought he'd had, all previous public scrutiny was, if we're being openminded, pure conjecture. How many other directors can we list that use cinema, television, whatever, to spout their opinions, from the politically conscious Robert Redford to the more politically abrasive Bill O'Reilly? At first, I thought, "Maybe he just really, really likes Jesus?" Apparently he does. A little too much. Sorry, bud. You screwed up. So, in retrospect, yes. I am offended. Not necessarily by the project itself, but by what it has come to represent: the height of human error.

The violence didn't really bother me either, but then I've been watching things like Nightmare on Elm Street since I was three, so there wasn't really anything shocking in it for me. Obviously, I understand how more sheltered individuals who generally wouldn't be attending a Rated-R movie would be... unsettled. In any case, Jesus the man did die by crucifixion, as did many others throughout history. Human beings have devised some amazing and horrendous methods of torture. To me, that aspect was less about Christ and much more about the depths of mankind's brutality, and again, how far people will go to prove that their side of the story is right, even if it means killing the opposing perspective. There are also much worse and sadistically pornographic examples of violence in film all the time, to the point where we have become totally immune to it. (Again, was three watching Krueger do his thing). The only reason anyone cared in this case is because the dude suffering the violence was the allegedly divine One. Had it been some topless horror damsel or action dude Vin Diesel or the Rock was being beaten to death, no one would have batted an eyelash. Religion just turns people ugly. This, we can all agree, is undebatable. "Live and let live" is a concept we've yet to latch onto.

The political issues, I can certainly get behind. People have a right to be offended by things. I'm offended every time I pass the magazines at the check out counter. "Why should I be forced to look at this garbage," I internally ask myself? That's when the apathetic shrug of "whatever" helps me out. No one's gonna acid rain on my parade. Controversy and argument are the things that keep us thinking and challenging each other and, most importantly, questioning our own judgments and premature conclusions. On the one hand, it is annoying when people make a stink over something they could easily ignore and laugh off as some whackadoo's absurd, televangelical, pet project, but human ire is a difficult thing to contain. Impossible even. On the other hand, at least our most irrational moments provide comedy, in this case "divine comedy." The cynics of the world often get the pleasure of sitting back and watching people spit fire at each other over something impossible to prove, defend, or even have a lucid conversation about: "Why are they yelling?"

As in all things Hollywood, the Gibson Gaff wasn't the first case brought before the Jesus jury. Almost 80 years prior to The Passion, Cecil B. DeMille was filming his epic, The King of Kings. If you thought The Passion war was a mess, wait until you get a load of this! Whereas Gibson's vehicle of spiritual testament unfolded itself before a nation still reacting to the events of Sept. 11, 2001-- a country looking for otherworldly answers or hope after the Twin Towers devastation-- Kings came about in the age of the Jazz-Baby, during a time of economic and social extravagance, where drugs, sex, and the changing tides of social norms came crashing down on tradition like an unstoppable wave. DeMille, therefore, approached the telling of the death of Christ with a vastly different intention. He wanted to pay homage, but he also wanted to humanize. Christ was to be taken down off the cross and made into a flesh and blood man, one that audiences could relate to. The characterization was altered so that the Son of God was not soft and effeminate, but masculine; he may have been beaten and bullied, but he was a tough guy as well, feared as much as he was loved. Much of DeMille's film was based upon the novel The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton, which looked at Jesus from a modern perspective, as a business man and every man, and not a symbol.

Of course, DeMille's script caused controversy before it even left the page. Not only did DeMille have to make a film that was as historically accurate as possible-- during the filming of which he had on hand a Protestant minister as an advisor-- but he also had to make sure that nothing was offensive to the other religious factions aka prospective ticket buyers. As a result, he had to have representatives for members of the Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim faith on set as well. The painstaking effort to be as politically correct as possible was fully endorsed by MPPDA Director Will Hays, himself a Presbyterian elder. As the "censorship czar," his agenda was not so much to preserve a wholesome and honest image of the Christ but to create a sellable product for the public. Above all things, he was in the business of making money, not movies, so while making a film that would appeal to Christians-- a very large portion of the American population-- may have been nice, the studio had to be able to sell tickets to the other sects as well. In the world of business, you don't want to tick off a viable source of funds.

With all of the controversy brewing in Hollywood by 1926-- which was still recovering from the scandalous fall of Fatty, Willy, and Wally-- Hays had to find a way to endear the ever-resistant religious community to the movies. Hollywood could not afford a boycott, so this film was a deliberate peacemaker, made with the hope of solidifying an alliance between the Church and Cinema. Indeed, the "Church" was on board with this whole design, for they wanted to win back their audiences as well. Attendance to Sunday Mass had dropped drastically as ticket sales at the movies had started to climb, and it seemed that the public had found a new God to worship. Religious leaders and preachers wrote letters of protest to the studios, claiming that they were defiling the nation's youth and teaching sin and amorality with their scandalous film scenarios. Still, equal salesmen themselves, they understood the power of movies as a great communicator and believed that Movie Palaces could essentially be turned into Cathedrals, using moral and holy screenplays to preach the word of God the world over. Some theaters began running films preceded with prayers; some ministers began showing films during their sermons. Oh, the incorruptibility of politics...

Indeed, there was a great fusion of religion and entertainment, which can be seen through the success of the Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (left). In the roaring twenties, lengthy sermons about good and evil ceased to hold an audience's interest, so Ms. Semple created a new brand of preaching, which writer Richard Maltby refers to as "religious vaudeville." Yeah... It was not mass, it was a show. A show about God. There was singing, dancing, hammily performed drama, and an ever-present undercurrent of sex, which the throngs of attendees sipped like un-holy water from a golden challis. Semple raised the stakes and provided room to breathe, for in her services, church-goers felt that they could be a little naughty and still go to Heaven. There was further controversy surrounding Semple when she disappeared, and presumably drowned, only to re-emerge and claim that she had been kidnapped! When the truth came out that she had merely been holed up in a love nest with a married man (hypocrisy, you win as usual) it instigated further debate. New-agers found it befitting to the modern period; traditionalists saw it as a call to arms. This all occurred in April of 1926, during the filming of DeMille's Kings, and obviously had a profound effect upon production.

DeMille finally finished his classic in January of 1927. After enduring the harsh criticism of test audiences, studio stipulations, and the necessary edits demanded by the B'hai B'rith committees, he only hoped that there was enough left of his film to provide a what he believed to be a truthful and compelling story-- though the hedonist in him was a bit hypocritical in broadcasting this degree of righteousness. Since there is no universal religion, it is impossible to make a religiously themed movie that everyone will agree upon. Thus, when audiences saw the film, the reactions were as expected. Despite all of the preparation and tireless efforts at bipartisanship, the divide was clear. One portion of the audience was moved to tears, sitting in awe at a masterpiece that revealed their God to them as they had never seen him before. The other portion was up in arms, finding the movie, surprise, anti-Semitic. In accordance with the endless issues, the film was changed so that, among other things, Caiaphas alone was blamed for Jesus's crucifixion and all Jewish participation was eliminated. (D.W. Griffith, always a source of controversy, had witnessed the same problems with his film Intolerance, one fourth of which revolved around the crucifixion). The King of Kings was neither a failure nor a success, breaking just about even at the box-office, primarily due to Cecil's spending habits which always made it difficult for him to recoup his losses.

From Dogma

There are nearly 80 years separating the premieres of both The King of Kings and The Passion of the Christ, but the same scenario publicly played out both times. This type of thing, therefore, is not a phenomenon but a fact. We each hold our own personal brand of religion close to our hearts, whether the staunch faith we have relies on a higher power for absolution or ourselves alone. When that "trust" we have is offended, insulted, or threatened, we break into sweats, lash out, and pretty much go bonkers. No film can be viewed with complete objectivity, especially when it presents spiritual topics that attack our well-schooled ideas and resultantly arouse violent emotions within us. It becomes hard to look at a film itself alone as a mere, independent contribution to art or at the very least conversation, after it has been steeped in such vengeful dialogue and diatribe. It seems, in the end, that no one can really make a movie about God. It always winds up being too much about man, both inside the theater and out. I don't know how I feel about Jesus the icon, but Jesus the man has my never-ending sympathy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

HISTORY LESSON: Life Before Popcorn

There is something magical about the movie-going experience. The theater has become a second home to many of us. On a weekend or a free night, we go to the nearest cinema, buy a ticket, and sit down with friends in a roomful of strangers. As the trailers begin, tickling us with the prospect of exciting new films to come, the lights darken, the audience hushes, and a rush of adrenaline hits as the awaited feature begins. As the anticipation of a new experience takes hold, all of the many people around us disappear, the sticky floor is forgotten, and we relax into the rickety seats in the theater's womb.

An integral ingredient of the movies is, of course, the candy: the snacks, the soft drinks... From pretzels to hot dogs, it seems that we accumulate more and more choices on which to gorge ourselves these days, and as our wallets get slimmer, our guts... Well, we won't go into that! But the Mother of all movie snacks is, has always been, and always will be, a big bucket of popcorn. In fact, "popcorn" and "movies" have become almost inseparable. Even at home, many of us toss a bag in the microwave to prep ourselves for a laid back DVD night, perhaps to bring us closer to the feeling we receive when watching something on the Big Screen. 

But, popcorn wasn't always around. Hard to imagine, I know, but in the early days, there was no food or drink allowed in the Nickelodeons, the Flicker shows, or the slowly emerging Movie Palaces. Perhaps this is because early movies were so short, running mere minutes to maybe an hour. As films became more grandiose and lengthy-- 2-reelers turning into 8-reelers-- rear-ends started aching and stomachs started rumbling. 

The early compensation for this was to have a meal before going to the theater, knowing full well that one would have to wait awhile before being able to grab a bite. Restaurants and eateries next-door to theaters, therefore, began to do very well. For example, a really busy joint in Hollywood was The Pig 'n' Whistle (above), which still stands today. Before people went next-door to Sid Graumann's Egyptian Theater (left), they would grab some grub and fill their tummies. Hence, "dinner and a movie." The Pig... has an interesting history all its own, feeding the likes of Loretta Young and Judy Garland. And The Egyptian has a claim to fame as being the first theater to officially host a true movie premiere extravaganza, (thanks to Douglas Fairbanks's epic Robin Hood, which literally took over Hollywood).

Sooner or later, theater-owners got smart, deciding to make theaters not only a facility for projecting films, but palaces that provided an "experience." As the structures became more lavish and popular amongst all classes, profiteers started looking for different ways to draw in the public. They began offering contests and raffles, in which lucky patrons would take home a cash prize. People loved it-- for awhile-- but it was more of a gimmick than a movie time ritual. Theater owners decided that they needed a new, reliable way to up the ante. Enter: Popcorn. 

During the Great Depression, popcorn provided a cheap and easy-to-make snack for the hungry nation. The modest "candy stand" appeared outside of theaters, generally manned by a high-schooler, and started earning hundreds of dollars worth of profits. Seeing the monetary potential, theater owners then placed concession stands inside their theaters, offering a wider variety of candy choices. Popcorn, at this point, was still located only at neighboring confectioneries or wagons strategically placed outside, but finally, at the end of the 1930s, popcorn stands found their way into theater lobbies as well.

The addiction was quick. Not only did the buttery scent of popcorn permeate the theater, where waiting patrons' mouths began to water, but the snack was much less expensive than the other candy selections. During the depression, movie-goers started foregoing chocolate for the more affordable, salty bags of popped decadence. Theater owners made a mint, for they could buy the kernels in bulk, saving money and thus making their money back a hundred fold. The big boom in popcorn sales even made corn a "cash crop" for farmers!!! It was everywhere, in every theater, and by WWII it was THE movie staple, never to be topped.

With the addition of air-conditioning, the movie theater became a lavish home away from home! Comfortable temperatures, food, entertainment... What more could a saddened country in the midst of war ask for? One ticket bought you an all day seat, and soon, stopping for popcorn in the lobby before or between features became second nature. 

So here we are, 70 years later, and nothing satisfies our taste-buds at movie time like ol' faithful. Next time you buy a bag, be sure to think about how such a simple thing has provided such pleasure to so many people, through good times and bad. We take it for granted, because it has solidified itself as one of our most cherished traditions, but the impact of popcorn on our culture is more complicated than we realize. So, savor the flavor of one of the things that makes the movies so much sweeter. "Let's all go to the Loooobby!"

Friday, December 4, 2009

I WAS TAGGED: Over The Top Blog Award

Many thanks to the fabulous Emma Wallace for tagging me with the "Over the Top Blog" award. As a result, I answered the following questions, being allowed one word only:

1. Where is your phone? Desk
2. Your hair? Blonde
3. Your Mother? Warrior
4. Your Father? Humorous 
5. Your favorite food? Thai
6. Your dream last night? Forgotten
7. Your favorite drink? Latte 
8. Your dream/goal? Artistry
9. What room are you in? Office
10. Your hobby? Reading
11. Your fear? Drowning
(12. is missing)
13. Where were you last night? Club!
14. Something that youre not? Judgmental 
15. Muffins? Blueberry 
16. Wish list item? Movies
17. Where did you grow up? Cincinnati
18. Last thing you did? Audition!!!
19. What are you wearing? Comfy
20. Your TV? BFF
21. Your pets? Nope
22. Friends? Delightful!
23. Your life? Chaos!!!!
24. Your mood? Cheerful
25. Missing someone? Sis
26. Vehicle? Rosebud
27. Something youre not wearing? Watch
28. Your favorite store? 
29. Your Favorite color? Purple 
30. When was the last time you laughed? Minutes
31. The last time you cried? Weeks
32. Your best friend? Hale
33. One place that I go to over and over? Panera! :) 
34. Facebook? Totes
35. Favorite place to eat? Parents'

And here are my top choices for the same award:

Trust me, I wish I could have chosen more. Have a great weekend!!! 

Thursday, December 3, 2009


It's that time again! Another month, another fantastic artist to be celebrated! This month is dedicated to Vivien Leigh, the woman who will be forever known as Scarlett O'Hara, but who possessed within herself the grace, power and dignity of multiple characters-- none of whom were more fascinating than herself.

A woman of great contradiction and determination, Vivien was born in India, raised in England, and remembered as a Southern Belle. She liked to toss back a gin and tonic with the boys and curse like a sailor, but always carried herself with grace and demanded that she be treated like a lady. One of the most gorgeous women to grace the silver screen, she actually despised the words "Beautiful" and "Pretty." She was loving, caring and gracious to all of her friends, but she possessed within her a hunger for personal fulfillment and success, which did not include the trappings of fame but the simple ability to work on her craft. A spitfire, Vivien always got what she wanted, including the role of Scarlett O'Hara, which was a long-shot for any actress, let alone an unknown, English one. It seemed that there was no battle that she could not win!

Sadly, the true "battle" Vivien was constantly waging took place within. The manifestation of her latent Bi-Polar Disorder did much to rupture an already complex and contradictory human being and nearly tore her apart from the inside out, as well as endangering her personal and professional relationships. As she grew older, Vivien's nerves and emotions were out of control, tugging her violently back and forth between moments of hysterical anger and fits of obsessive sobbing. She suffered from insomnia and used to slap her beloved, and startled, Laurence Olivier awake in the middle of the night. Even on film sets, Vivien, the consummate professional and perfectionist, was sometimes unable to control her manic vacillations, and would lash out irrationally at co-stars, crew members, and the all-mighty directors she worked with. When the dark cloud in her eyes lifted, she would supplicate herself before her victims, ashamed and embarrassed at her behaviors, which she was unfortunately unable to control. Her deep grief and apologies touched those around her and made it impossible for them to refuse her forgiveness. Many would remark on her great courage and lack of self-pity. Vivien, in her later life, would go in for her regular ECT treatments, which left burn marks on her temples, and still go onstage at night for a performance. She refused to lie down and die. She battled her demons constantly, and-- though she died young of a tubercular infection-- I believe she conquered them.

Many remark today that she is overrated, perhaps because they remember her only for her two most famous roles, Scarlett and Blanche DuBois, both of which garnered her Academy Awards. Perhaps she is under-appreciated because some of her best work was on the London stage, which we obviously cannot appreciate now. Perhaps her talent, as it was in her lifetime, remains overshadowed by the legendary talents of her 2nd husband, Mr. Olivier, against whom any would pale in comparison. Finally, it may be that her acting style seems outmoded after the emergence of the Method actors, who elevated film acting to a whole new level, as Vivien and her Larry Boy had done a generation before. This is truly criminal, for Vivien remains the most fascinating part of any film she appeared in, even when the ravages of her mental and physical illnesses were apparent. She always possessed a great stillness that bottled a raging inner passion. In her eyes, one can see the wheels spinning, the emotions forever swimming. In watching Viv, it is the little things that make her power enormous. From Gone with the Wind, to That Hamilton Woman, to Ship of Fools, she remains a force to be reckoned with. So, don't fight it! Just sit back and enjoy!!!

Happy December!!!

Friday, November 27, 2009

HOT SPOTS in CA: The Hollywood Heritage Museum

It only makes sense, being out of town for the Thanksgiving Holiday, that I grow homesick and devote this week's post to my beloved L.A. La Land and another of its great historical landmarks. The Hollywood Heritage Museum sits across the street from the Hollywood Bowl Theater on Highland Avenue, but most people know it as little more than a place to park when a concert is going on. It is a modest building, tucked just under the 101 Freeway, and easily overshadowed by the busy, electric intersection of Hollywood and Highland. Not much to look at from the outside, inside it possesses many interesting artifacts from cinematic history, including a camera used to shoot Gone with the Wind. But the history of the building makes it far more significant than it may at first appear. It is not just some random building, now used for preservational purposes, but is an actual piece of cinematic history, dating all the way back to the very beginning of California's birth as the Kingdom of Movies. At this time, Prospect was the main street running West to East down Harvey Wilcox's new city. It would be years later that it be renamed Hollywood Blvd.

In October of 1911, David Horsley of the Centaur Film Company, which he had formed with Biograph Director Charles Gorman, came to Hollywood with his brother William. (As a side note, Horsley and Gorman got the name for their company by combining their two names: Horse- + -Man = Centaur). The Horsley brothers' mission was to come to the slowly growing movie town, and set up a camp for their new studio. They met up with Murray Steele who took them to "The Blondeau Tavern" at Sunset and Gower, which was closing due to a ban on alcohol. The property, which included the tavern, a corral, several small buildings, a bungalow, and a barn-- was rented by the brothers from Mr. Blondeau for $35/mo. They used it as a center for their production.

Two years later, in 1913, the land would fall into the possession of Cecil B. DeMille (aboveJesse LaskySamuel Goldfish aka Goldwyn, and Arthur Friend. They had just formed the "Jesse K. Lasky Feature Play Company" in New York, and had been looking for terrain in Arizona on which to film a cinematic version of the play The Squaw Man. After finding Flagstaff unsuitable for the shoot, they moved over to Los Angeles, and happened upon the barn that the Horsley's had rented out two years prior. The current owner was Jacob Stern, who agreed to rent the barn out again on a month to month basis... as long as he could leave his horses and carriage there. And so, the boys of the Lasky team set up shop, filming The Squaw Man, which many regard as the first official full-length feature to be filmed in Los Angeles.

Working out of the barn, where DeMille set up his office, was no easy feat. DeMille had to raise his boots whenever a wash of water came running through the barn, usually the result of the horses being cleaned by Stern. The offices had literally been made out of horse stalls, as were the dressing rooms and projection rooms. Another interesting fact about their time there, was that Lasky was the first filmmaker to hire writers and scenarists to work "in house," and so this barn harbored the first studio story department! Amidst the mud and the chaos, they somehow made it work. Filming officially began on December 29, 1913. The resulting movie was a smash success and helped to take filmmaking to a whole new level of creativity and artistry. 

Still from The Squaw Man

The barn was moved from its original site (what is now 1521 Vine Street) to Paramount Studios, where it often served as a set piece on productions, including television's "Bonanza." It remained there for 55 years, until it was set to be demolished. It was saved, thank goodness, and moved to its current location on Highland. Then, in 1996, it suffered through a horrible fire that destroyed much of its precious artifacts. Thankfully, the building was restored and as of 1999 was re-opened to the public.

Inside, curious history buffs will find a replication of Cecil B. DeMille's private office, a large photographic collection of early Hollywood, film props, and other assorted memorabilia. The barn is surprisingly large on the inside, which makes its outer proportions quite deceptive. The staff hosts tours there, as well as many other interesting lectures about cinema and its history. (I myself went to a discussion about Errol Flynn that was very enlightening, for a personal friend of his, author Steven Hayes, was there, and many unseen photos of him were shared). 

If ever you adhere to the lesson, "Don't judge a book by its cover," let it be to see this great, historical landmark-- if not even to see the treasures that lie within its walls, then to physically set your own two feet upon an official piece of Hollywood History. The Hollywood Heritage Museum is open five days a week, Wed-Sun, from noon to 4pm. It is located at 2100 North Highland Avenue. Call (323) 874-2276 for more information.

Friday, November 20, 2009


In the world of history, all roads intersect. It truly is a small world, but the knowledge that we are all bound together inside of it can be a powerful thing. In studying Hollywood, I am focused on a very particular section of the past, but it is impossible to study the geography of one place without encroaching on other territories. The landscape of human life is forever intertwining, forever overlapping. Sometimes the bridges we forge between worlds is entertaining-- a hysterical bit of trivia-- and sometimes reassuring. Seeing the pieces of a massive puzzle all coming together to form one picture, albeit an ever-evolving one, makes the mystery of life and human connection all the more compelling. Is this not why we burrow into the past? To understand, to learn, to seek a commonality, which gives life a new meaning?

It is interesting to note the strange connections that different celebrities have with each other, outside of well-forged friendships. Chance encounters, life-altering meetings, and brief glimpses of different people from different generations seem to weld together the otherwise disconnected feelings that we have about important historical figures. I admit freely that I tend to think of people as existing within their own time line, so when I research a particular person and am introduced to the peers and acquaintances within their "community," I find it surprising. All of these separate stitches come together to form one large, all-encompassing fabric. It amuses me, and at the same time makes the person I study more tangible. Here are a few random encounters that struck me when I came across them:

~ Rin Tin Tin was one of the most famous, best beloved, and highest paid stars in Hollywood when he died on August 10, 1932. He peacefully met his maker in the arms of a new neighbor who had just moved in with her husband, Paul Bern. The new Hollywood ingenue? Jean Harlow.


~ In 1920, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were returning from a lengthy, European honeymoon. While aboard the SS Olympic heading for New York, they encountered a charming 16-year-old, English lad who was headed for America for the first time. His name was Archibald Leach. He would later be known as Cary Grant.

~ When Carole Lombard's plain tragically went down in January of 1942, it crashed into the mountains of Nevada. Before her husband, Clark Gable, had even heard the tragic news, 2 famous neighbors from the silent film days saw the flames going up over the mountains beyond their ranch. Rex Bell and Clara Bow were unaware of the gravity of the event when Rex went riding out to the scene, being one of the first to offer help.

~ One night in 1929, struggling actor Boris Karloff was leaving the Universal lot after a hard day of extra work. He was tired, and was thus very grateful when a generous man pulled over and offered to give him a lift. Lon Chaney then gave Boris the best career advice he was ever to receive- "The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do-- and they'll begin to take notice of you." Clearly, Boris took the words of wisdom to heart.

~ Back in the 1940s, one of Hollywood's most notorious hot-spots was the Florentine Gardens. Many big-wigs went here to see and be seen, flirt with the pretty girls, and spend money on a strong drink. Young wannabe actresses went there hoping to bump into a producer or director, who would maybe give them a screen test. Two ingenues who met here? Elizabeth "The Black Dahlia" Short and Norma Jean Baker, otherwise known as Marilyn Monroe.

I came across another coincidence lately that went beyond the actor-actor connection. This one actually blew my mind, for although the "6 degrees of Kevin Bacon" law unites us all... this one stretches so far back into history, uniting two unlikely people, that all I could do was shake my head at the craziness of it.

                                                                     Wallace Reid                                                     

~Few people today remember the handsome matinee idol, Wallace Reid, although at one point he was one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Even fewer are familiar with his wife, Dorothy Davenport (below, top left), a movie star in her own right, who was descended from a long line of accomplished thespians, including the illustrious Fanny Davenport (bottom left), her aunt. (Fanny had, by the way, started an acting company in which the young actor Cunningham Deane aka William Desmond Taylor was performing in 1896). Dorothy's grandfather, Edward Loomis Davenport (top right) was a huge theater star in his time. So famous had he become, that his face appeared on etched cigar bands. Abraham Lincoln (left) was a fan of his work, and was excited when E.L. invited him to a performance of Othello at the Grover Theater on April 14, 1864. Unfortunately, Mary Todd had already made plans for them to see Our American Cousin at the Ford's Theater where, the night of the play, actor John Wilkes Booth (bottom right) shot Lincoln in his private box. Dorothy Davenport's grandfather very nearly saved Lincoln's life with his invitation, but fate had other plans. (Interestingly, E.L. had made his stage debut with Booth's father Junius Brutus Booth in Providence, RI). Wallace Reid-> Dorothy Davenport-> E.L. Davenport-> Abraham Lincoln. Less than 6 degrees of KB! Amazing! 

Hollywood seems to exist as its own separate universe- a galaxy of luminous stars radiating beyond the realm of the general population. Even living in Hollywood, one feels that there are two separate dimensions: the real world, and then the glossy world of fiction and fantasy-- the Olympus hovering somewhere overhead. It is a place that we cannot see nor touch, but that we are somehow constantly aware of. That is why I take such pleasure in the aforementioned instances of historical convergence, where "Hollywood" comes out from hiding and reveals itself as a real populace, filled with real people.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Blurring of Violence

In continuing my exploration of Lon Chaney this month, I thought it appropriate to discuss one of his most notorious films: London After Midnight. However, I do not broach this topic as a means of discussing the usual controversy surrounding the movie, which is that it remains one of the most sought after "lost" silent film in existence-- or, in this case, non-existence. Rather, I want to confront the startling effect the film had on its audiences and on one audience member in particular... 

I have often said that if you investigate early cinema for the first 20 years of its existence, you will have heard the whole story. We continue to interpret darker current events as startling and even devastating when in reality they are tired, tried, and true stories of shamefully recurring human behavior. In Hollywood, from film plots to celebrity self-destruction, it's all been done before, because as it turns out: times may change, but people don't. [Moment of silence for human stupidity].

So it is with London After Midnight, which planted the seed of blame in the land of celluloid for actions of violence in the real world.  Lon Chaney was already known for his horrifying faces and their powerful affect on the public by the time he starred in Tod Browning's latest feature. In fact, during previous screenings of The Phantom of the Opera, ambulances often had to be summoned to attend to the faint of heart who were passion out in the middle of screenings in reaction to the gruesome visage of the phantom "Erik" for the first time. (Friedkin's The Exorcist repeated this phenomenon in the '70s, but again, Lon was first). However, to my knowledge, it wasn't until London that the line between exhilarated viewership-- high on the adrenaline of a good scare-- and paranoiac obsession was crossed, instigating viewers to repeat 2-dimensional sequences of the silver screen in our 3-dimensional world.

Robert Williams was a carpenter living in London when he saw London in 1928. So profound was his reaction to what he saw that he claimed he was afterward "haunted" by the Vampire Lon had portrayed. Overcome with fear and anxiety, he suffered an "epileptic fit," and consequently killed his Irish housemaid, all while supposedly under the influence of Chaney's villain. In court, Williams would plead his innocence, citing temporary insanity as induced by his viewing of the film. The courts, thankfully, did not buy his story, and he was found guilty of the murder.

Clearly, controversy surrounding violence in the media is not a new phenomenon, born in the past few decades but an old dog playing new tricks. The more brutal the stories become and the more graphic the special effects, the more people want to blame film's more macabre moments for instigating horrific actions in reality. The "the movies did it" defense has become an easy fall back for out-of-control, non-fictional villains responding to carefully contrived, fictional worlds.

Most are aware of the infamous story of John Hinckley, and how he became so obsessed witha young Jodie Foster (left) after watching Taxi Driver that he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. His goal was to "impress" Foster; to make himself as important and historically relevant as she had become through her acting. And this was not his first attempt. He had stalked Jodie, moved to Connecticut when she began her classes at Yale, slipped notes under her door, and had originally targeted Jimmy Carter as his victim, only to be foiled by a fortunate firearms charge. Hinckley's (below) defense for the attempted assassination of Reagan was to blame the movies. He claimed that he was so effected by the violence and mania of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver that he was driven to murder.

There are other stories, of course, but they are so common these days that they usually don't make as many waves. The television show "Dexter" has lately been blamed for inciting the murder of Johnny Brian Altinger by Mark Twitchell, a fan of the show. In Scotland in 2002, Allan Menzies claimed that he murdered a friend when seduced by Akasha, Anne Rice's anti-heroine from the film adaptation Queen of the Damned. Equally, after the Columbine tragedy, many questions were raised as to the influence that violence in the media had had on the two young killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. 

Ted Bundy was also clever enough to blame pornography for his disturbing, sexually charged murders, and in this instance the public equally jumped on the band wagon. The scapegoat of dangerous images became a convenient way to explain away the psychological conundrum of our species and equally gave us an agenda to, in a sense, kill the messenger to ease our fears, those which in this case we specifically hold against our neighbors. Bundy was just toying with us of course, and his claims offered no real resolutions. However is making the intangible world of, for our purposes, cinema an antagonist in our endlessly chaotic world like blaming the inventor of the hammer for the person who uses it to bludgeon instead of build? The narrow line between artistic interpretation and skewed and repackaged media dramatization wherein we are hypnotized by dirty pictures and salacious advertisements to feed our sado-masochistic tendencies. In America, the Lizzie Borden case is often identified as the source of the strange gluttonous love affair between media and audience. Over 110 years after Lizzie was declared "not guilty," television viewing audiences held their breath watching the OJ Simpson trial.

As showcased in the aforementioned, the irony of the "life imitating art" argument is, of course, that movies are the result of art imitating life. Films are made to translate in a structured fashion the complexities of human behavior; they are meant to act as mirrors, reflecting our own compulsions and emotions back onto us. We go to the theater seeking some truth of ourselves, and whether the image revealed be glorious or ugly, these "truths" were crafted with our own hands by our own collective history. A movie is not a living creature, enforcing its wrath on us; and if it is, it is our breath that gave it that life.

This creates a confusing and baffling cycle, for movies are thus made interpreting old patterns of human behavior only to be blamed for inciting new violence. For example, Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs, were all partially based upon the true story of Ed Gein and his horror house of death (below). On November 17, 1957, police arrived at Gein's residence in Plainfield, WI to arrest him for shoplifting, only to find the farmhouse full of dead bodies, chairs made of skin, and belts made of nipples (to name only a few monstrosities). The disturbing evil, which Gein had crafted into his own sick artistry-- fashion of the flesh--  was a prime subject for storytelling. Possessing the worst in all things psychological, social, historical, and human, it is no wonder that Hitchcock swooped in to turn Gein's madness into cinematic genius. Psycho shocked, appalled, intrigued... and apparently inspired, for later murders were blamed on the film. But Psycho did not create the monster; Hitch had simply re-told an old story. This raises other questions, including that asking if cinema had accidentally become a way for serial killer Ed Gein to continue his destruction? Had the vessels of truth become tools of evil?

                                                  Hitchcock's Psycho House                                                    

In the end, blaming movies for the actions a person chooses to perform in life seems to be a desperate and feeble attempt at salvation. The movie screen, in its magnitude and power, sits Godlike on its pedestal over our heads. We look up to it for answers, for help, for healing... We hope for it to take us away from our lives and protect us from the big bad world outside, (if only for two hours). We love it, as long as it loves us, but when it disappoints us, all we tiny humans can do is point our fingers at it and say, "This is your fault! I renounce you!" In this, we only ever renounce our own responsibility.

As in all things, you take from something only what you bring to it, but, the wheel goes round and round-- or should I say the film canister-- and so the blame game continues. In the end, it is not the images we see flickering on the screen that terrify us, but the things they make us see within ourselves-- evoking, provoking, enticing, forbidding, making masochists of us all, because despite protestation, we keep buying tickets.

*** Update: Indiana teen Andrew Conley was arrested for the murder of his 10-year-old brother in November of 2009. He was an alleged "huge Dexter fan," and many are blaming the show's violence for his horrendous acts.