Thursday, December 1, 2011

That movie I'm always talking about

If you've read my recent book The Films of James Bridges, you know how highly I think of the writer-director's 1978 film September 30, 1955. You also probably know how hard it has been to see September 30, 1955. Apart from a VHS release in the late '90s, the film has had no presence on home video.

That is, until now. I was thrilled to learn that September 30, 1955 is finally -- finally! -- available on DVD from Universal's Vault Series, via

I haven't yet viewed the DVD, so I can't comment on the disc itself. What I can tell you is that the film's admirers include Janet Maslin, Dave Kehr, David Ansen, and Joe LeSeur. Once you see this remarkable, utterly unique movie, I think you will join their estimable company.

And if you're curious to know more of my opinions about the film (and details of its making -- I interviewed its stars, Richard Thomas and Lisa Blount, and its great cinematographer, Gordon Willis, among many others), be sure to order The Films of James Bridges here or here.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that my book could have been subtitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About September 30, 1955... But Were Afraid to Ask.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sarris says it all

The other day, I came across a perfect definition of the art of film directing. At least the kind of film directing I value most. It comes courtesy of Andrew Sarris, who probably wasn't trying to make a sweeping statement when he tossed off these words in his favorable Village Voice review of Mike Nichols's The Graduate. But for me it says it all.

"Style is more an attitude toward things than the things themselves. It can be a raised eyebrow or a nervous smile or a pair of shrugged shoulders. It can even be an averted glance."

I could write ten thousand words on why I treasure the style of George Cukor more than I do the style of Terrence Malick.

But I could never express the core idea behind that opinion better than Andrew Sarris did, more than forty years ago.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Patty Duke on William Asher

Four years ago, when I was writing a two-part article about the remarkable career of writer-director William Asher (whose birthday is on Monday), I had the chance to interview a number of Asher's colleagues. There were many to choose from. Asher is perhaps best known for his work on I Love Lucy and Bewitched, as well as the "beach party" films he made for American International Pictures, such as Beach Blanket Bingo. (Film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon credits Asher with "concocting what was practically a new genre" in the beach movies.) During his five-decade career, he did a lot more than those projects, however, and I didn't limit myself to the most famous ones. (For example, I interviewed the editor and the director of photography of his final feature, the underrated Movers & Shakers.)

One of the people I most enjoyed speaking with was Patty Duke. With Sidney Sheldon, Asher co-created The Patty Duke Show, and he directed the majority of episodes during the first season. I was eager to hear what Duke remembered about working with him on this very innovative series -- as memorable, in its way, as Lucy or Bewitched.

At the time of our conversation, I had only seen a handful of episodes of The Patty Duke Show. I admired Duke primarily on the basis of her dramatic work, most notably her truly iconic performance as Helen Keller in Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker, as well as her Emmy Award-winning performance in the lesser known My Sweet Charlie, directed by Lamont Johnson. So when Shout! Factory began releasing all three seasons of The Patty Duke Show on DVD in 2009, it was a revelation -- at least as far as I was concerned. Playing the dual role of cousins Patty and Cathy Lane, Duke was clearly a born comedienne.

For Asher's part, the first season of The Patty Duke Show was just one of the many things that occupied his time in 1963 -- that same year, he had two movies in theatres (Beach Party and Johnny Cool), and he had two more (Muscle Beach Party and Bikini Beach) out the following year. "Our producer-director, Bill Asher, was a man who liked to be simultaneously involved in several different projects," Sidney Sheldon wrote in his autobiography -- and my research told me that was an understatement.

Though we only spoke for perhaps 15 minutes, Duke couldn't have been more helpful. When I called, she had in mind several points that she wanted to make to me, and I chose to let her guide the brief, highly enjoyable discussion that followed. I found her to be completely disarming, and full of enthusiasm for the show -- and for its director. In fact, everybody I talked to sang the praises of William Asher (and I plan to post more extracts from my conversations with his collaborators in the near future), but Patty Duke sang them especially well.

Some of this material first appeared in my article, "Up From the Cutting Room: The William Asher Story, Part 1," CinemaEditor, Volume 57, Issue 4, Fourth Quarter 2007.

Patty Duke: Sidney Sheldon actually created the concept and the story. But certainly Bill's work on the set, and what he brought to it as a director, was a major contribution to the creativity of it. On a personal level, one of the many things that Bill did for me -- and I don't exactly know how he did it, except by osmosis -- was to infuse me with a kind of confidence that I really didn't have going in. He got that going and then he kept it afloat for playing both characters. I always had more trouble with the Patty character, the supposedly more outgoing one. Oddly, the other character was more like me! Shy. Bill would run around, saying, "Come on, Chicky Baby! Come on, Chicky Baby! Chicky Baby, you can do this!"

I only know this in retrospect, but his energy had enormous sex appeal. And so for a girl of 16, in that day and age, it was very easy to have a crush on him. And I was not alone!

Peter Tonguette: I gather that he was a rather debonair figure in those days. He knew John F. Kennedy...

PD: Oh, yes. And yet he wore it with complete ease. Never did I feel that he thought he was better than somebody else. But his innate, enormous energy was the key, I think, to why he was so successful.

He did the pilot and sent us off in good stead. Then he did, I believe, six episodes*, but he was committed to other things and so it was time for the series to get in the mode of having a different director every week. But he set the tone, he set the class of what we did. And, again, when you look back on it, it seems to be so primitive, but if you really look at the acting work, it's very classy. And that has an enormous amount to do with Bill.

PT: Several years later, he became so identified with Bewitched...

PD: Yes, and was I jealous or what!

PT: Bewitched was noted for its special effects work, and there's some of that in your show, too.

PD: Yes, there was. Believe it or not, we were groundbreakers! Of course, we didn't have the benefit of all the computers things that you can do now. But when I talk to people who still seek out the show, what they like about it isn't necessarily the special effects. Yeah, they liked that there were two girls who looked alike. But basically it was the stories and the acting. And, of course, the direction.

PT: In your experience, do you find the qualities you describe in William Asher to be unique?

PD: Most definitely. Of course, he as a person is unique. And "unique" can be a word that gets bandied about, but my understanding of "unique" is that kind of one-ness that someone brings to something that totally alters for the better what that thing is.

PT: People who've worked with him have told me that he would bring out the best qualities in a show or in a script.

PD: Oh, absolutely. The best qualities not only of the story, but of the performers. And the tricks. If there were tricks in the show, he made them work!

PT: I think his background in post-production -- he began as a film editor -- must have contributed to his understanding of all of the technical stuff.

PD: It is absolutely invaluable for a director. Not a lot of directors get that little facet, but they eventually catch up. When we were doing the split-screens -- which, again, to us then were complicated! -- his ease and comfort with it just allowed you to do your work and not worry that it was going to turn out okay. I would bet he would liken it to a kind of freedom, to go and deal the story and the actors because he's got all that other stuff at the tip of his fingers.

He also always wore little velvet slippers. I just don't want you to miss the picture!

PT: You're painting a very vivid picture! Did you remain in touch with him after The Patty Duke Show ended?

PD: We have throughout the years -- not nearly as much as we would like, but certainly we remain connected.

PT: Did anything else ever come up where you would work together again?

PD: Sadly, no. But I haven't given up hope yet!

PT: Earlier, you mentioned that he could only direct so many episodes of The Patty Duke Show because he was committed to other projects. He was so prolific.

PD: And he never sacrificed quality.

PT: You never got the sense that his attention was elsewhere while he was working with you?

PD: No, absolutely not. He has the capacity, particularly with women, for that woman to think that she is the only woman in the world.

* According to the Internet Movie Database, Asher directed a total of eight episodes, in addition to directing the pilot.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Remembering Anna Massey

I am terribly, terribly sorry to read of the death of actress Anna Massey. For many years, she has been one of my favorite actresses, particularly for her work in an unusually high number of films made by major directors nearing the end of their careers. Her film debut was in John Ford's Gideon's Day (1958), made a little less than ten years before Ford's last feature. She had a leading role in Hitchcock's penultimate film, Frenzy (1972), and a memorable supporting role in a key late Preminger film, Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Then in 1982, she appeared in the great final film of Fred Zinnemann, Five Days One Summer.

Last spring, I was writing an article for CinemaEditor magazine about George Cukor's version of Emlyn Williams's The Corn Is Green (1979), in which Massey appeared alongside Katharine Hepburn. The focus of my piece was the editing of The Corn Is Green and the director's collaboration with editor John Wright; I thought of it as a continuation of my earlier CinemaEditor piece about the editing of Cukor's Travels With My Aunt (1972), Love Among the Ruins (1975), and Rich and Famous (1981). Even so, I thought it could be interesting to give the piece a broader context by speaking with someone who acted in the film. This, of course, provided me with an opportunity to interview Anna Massey.

While we mostly talked about the Cukor film, I couldn't resist asking Massey about some of the directors mentioned above, and others she had worked with, like George Roy Hill (she had tiny roles in his A Little Romance [1979] and The Little Drummer Girl [1984]) and Bob Rafelson (Mountains of the Moon [1990]). She was a very expansive interview subject, so my challenge was in winnowing the material down -- I hated to lose a word of what she said, even when what she said didn't have anything to do with The Corn Is Green!

Below are some highlights from our conversation. Much of this material first appeared in my article, "'Now I'm a television director': George Cukor's The Corn Is Green," CinemaEditor, Volume 60, Issue 3, Third Quarter 2010.

On The Corn Is Green:

Anna Massey: He [Cukor] and Katharine Hepburn knew each other so well that they had a special way of talking to each other which was quite amusing to listen to. He would always say, “That was a good take and now we’ll go again.” She would always say, “If it’s a good take, then why are we going again?” It was a running gag.

I found him quite irascible, to be perfectly honest, and quite unbending and slightly old-fashioned. I thought it was very much a 1940s Hollywood version of The Corn Is Green.

Peter Tonguette: Of course, Hollywood was the world Cukor came from.

AM: Yes, but a lot of the great directors moved more with the times. There were great directors, like Michael Powell and Ford and Huston, who didn’t get stuck in the era that they worked in.

It [The Corn Is Green] was very formal and unexploited. We did it, but it wasn’t really discovered. It felt to me very old-fashioned.

PT: This was your first time working with Cukor. Had you worked with Hepburn previously?

AM: It was my first time working with both of them. I adored her. She was a most original person and terribly generous. She took us all out for picnics made by her on Saturdays or whenever we had the day off. She would wear Spencer Tracy’s old shirts and old trousers and sit under umbrellas. At that time, with her skin, she couldn’t have any sun anywhere near her. She loved the water where we were staying and she took bottles back to the States. She said her skin felt terrific, washing in that water. You felt like you were in an old film.

I just would have loved more direction [from Cukor]. He let my voice get higher and higher with each take. At his peak, he was meant to be the great director for women, wasn’t he? He was always known as the great director for women. But I would have liked more direction! They didn’t really know that much about the subject that they were filming. Emlyn Williams’s story, which took place in the early part of the 20th century, wasn’t their territory, really. They weren’t at an age when you explore that. It was their version of something that they already had in their minds.

She didn’t take direction either. Nobody would say, “That’s not what that line means!” Nobody could say it. Although, actually, if you had, she would have been totally open to it. But when you’re a legend, you tend to become slightly out of touch with the real world, don’t you? I remember John Gielgud said once, when he was doing all of these Hollywood films and they had him for millions of dollars for very small parts, “I will play it, I accept it, but please, please tell the director to give me some direction!” The greats, the geniuses -- they long for it. I think if somebody would have come up and said, “Look, this is what this line means, Katharine,” she would have been very, very grateful. But nobody did.

[Cukor] was in considerable pain, exacerbated by the damp Welsh weather. He never joined in on the weekends when we all went off traipsing into the Welsh hills. He didn’t come with us.

When you’re in something, and you’re with the director, you do the shot. You don’t really see the overall view that he has until you see it all together. I have to say I was extremely disappointed when I saw it all together. I didn’t believe in the boy at all. I knew Emlyn Williams very, very well. He was one of my mother’s closest friends. And Emlyn was a little Welsh pit pony, and this boy was just not.

PT: Had you ever played in The Corn Is Green before making the film?

AM: No, but I did afterwards. I performed it on the radio. I played Miss Moffat on the radio. It was a very good production we did. Emlyn was around at the time that we did it.

I mean, listen. Let’s be brutal. [Hepburn] was no more Miss Moffat than the side of the moon. She was a huge personality and she had enormous screen charisma. She was the heroine to beat all heroines. I knew the character upon whom Miss Moffat was based; I knew Emlyn’s teacher. And [Hepburn] was no more like that than I’m like the Queen of England.

But I’m saying this at the grand old age of 72. When I was in it, it was the most extraordinary experience and I loved every minute of it. I actually found [Cukor] really waspish. But I think looking back, when you’re in pain you lash out sometimes when you don’t mean to.

On Gideon's Day:

AM: If you take Gideon’s Day, that was quite far from John Ford’s world. But he encapsulated it with wit and it had some wonderful things in it. He was wonderful to work with. He edited on the floor. He knew exactly what he wanted. He knew to the millionth of a second how long a take should be.

On Bunny Lake Is Missing:

AM: George Cukor, compared to Otto Preminger, was a saint. Preminger was the most irascible and unpleasant director that I have ever worked with.

PT: I don’t know how you feel about the film, but I think it’s wonderful!

AM: I think it’s terrific. Terrific suspense and talk about visuals. Very, very powerful. And I loved it being in black-and-white. Such a coup, that.

On George Roy Hill:


I loved him. He was a darling man. The Sting is one of the greatest films of that genre ever made. He was so witty. Oh, God, he was so funny.

On Fred Zinnemann:

AM: Five Days One Summer doesn’t work. There was no charisma between Sean Connery and Betsy Brantley. She was just not cast correctly, I don’t think. I was asked to coach her at one point. She just wasn’t happy in her part. Sweet girl. She wasn’t right for the part. She was at sea.

On Bob Rafelson:

AM: He’s a really interesting director to work for. My God, he goes on and on until he gets what he wants. When you work with Hitchcock, when you work with Powell, when you work with Ford, we hardly ever went over one take. A maximum of two. Whereas with Bob Rafelson, you did five or six on every single angle.

On "Camera" versus "Action":

AM: Normally directors say “Action,” but because [Cukor] worked in [early] movies, he said “Camera.” And I loved that! I said to somebody on the set, “Why is he saying ‘Camera’ and not ‘Action?’” I didn’t start when he said it the first time because I didn’t know what it meant! [Laughs]

PT: Ford and Hitchcock began in the silent era -- did they say “Camera”?

AM: With Hitchcock, I think he allowed the first assistant director to say “Action.” I don’t think he said it. I’m not sure. A lot of directors do allow that. The first assistant says, “Are you ready, sir?” I have a feeling that Colin Brewer [assistant director on Frenzy] said “Action.” But I might be wrong. Hitchcock would say “Cut.”

PT: And Ford?

AM: Ford would have said “Action.” I had never heard “Camera” before Cukor. But one is always very, very nervous in those situations, when you’re working with those very great people. You are working with legends. So they well might have said “Camera”!

If you ever find out if Hitchcock said "Action," will you let me know? [Laughter]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Midnight in Paris, and its antecedents

When Woody Allen's musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, was released in 1996, Roger Ebert made a bold proclamation. As he watched the penultimate scene, he wrote, it occurred to him that the film was "the best... Woody Allen has ever made. Not the most profound, or the most daring, or the most successful in every one of its details -- but simply the best, because he finds the right note for every scene, and dances on a tightrope between comedy and romance, between truth and denial, between what we hope and what we know."

I no longer remember if I read Ebert's review (which is among his most eloquently written) before or after I saw Everyone Says I Love You, but once I did, I found myself in complete agreement with him. Nearly 15 years have passed since the film debuted, and while I've come to value Allen's dramas (such as Interiors and Another Woman) every bit as much as his comedies, I haven't changed my mind about the greatness of the life-affirming Everyone Says.

In many ways, Everyone Says anticipated Allen's recent European films since it was set not only in New York, but also Venice and Paris. The film's final act takes place in the City of Light over the holiday season. As the narrator, D.J., explains, her family doesn't do the normal things families do at that time of the year, like sing carols, but instead, "what we do is head for Paris, to spend Christmas at the Ritz."

Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, feels like a feature-length version of the Paris sequence of Everyone Says. Both films are full of Allen's love for the city, its history, its culture, and, in fact, its parties (Everyone Says concludes with a party in honor of the Marx Brothers). There are visual echoes, too. The beginning of Midnight in Paris has been compared to the beginning of Manhattan, but I think it echoes Everyone Says more noticeably. The new film opens with a series of shots depicting Paris through the course of a single day, going from morning to afternoon to twilight to evening; it reminds me of the way Allen introduced each new season in Everyone Says with a brief series of shots of New York locales during spring or summer or fall or winter. Both shot sequences are about the passage of time, whether several months in Everyone Says or several hours in Midnight in Paris.

I was also reminded of Oedipus Wrecks, Allen's wonderful contribution to the anthology film New York Stories. In that short film, the Allen character's deceased mother appears as a ghost in the sky. But the inspiration behind this boldly comic idea came from an unlikely brainstorm. Allen has said, "Once, long before I did New York Stories, I was sitting in my apartment looking up at the sky and I was listening to a jazz record [soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet]... and I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could see that musician in the sky playing music and, you know, only I could hear this musician playing it for the whole city?'"

Obviously, Allen took the idea in a different direction in Oedipus Wrecks, but the sentiment remained. The same wishful thinking seems to have been the catalyst for Midnight in Paris. The aspiring novelist played by Owen Wilson romanticizes Paris for its writers and artists, and then one night, out of the blue, a Peugeot pulls up and takes him to a party attended by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Cole Porter, among others. The longing for contact with great artists of the past is very touching in both Allen's daydream about Sidney Bechet and the story of Midnight in Paris.

The film is a triumph on all levels. After my frustration with the fragmentary, over-edited quality of The Tree of Life, it was a pleasure to see a film so beautifully and carefully crafted, with its leisurely long takes and perfect timing. (Watch how long Allen stays on close-ups of Marion Cotillard in a few scenes.) The ensemble cast is Allen's best in several years, though my favorite cameo is undoubtedly that of Adrien Brody (reunited with Wilson, his co-star from The Darjeeling Limited), who plays, with great intensity, Salvador Dali.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

My problem with The Tree of Life

As I was watching The Tree of Life, the new film written and directed by Terrence Malick, I remembered something legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis told me when I interviewed him for my book about James Bridges. "The lack of definition in movies today is appalling," Willis said. "Very few people know how to mount a narrative anymore. If a scene works in one cut, you don't need ten. Or it might need ten; let's not make it twenty."

The Tree of Life is a case study of how not to follow Willis's tenets about cutting. In all of his recent films, and particularly in this one, Malick seems to subscribe to the idea that if a scene works in twenty cuts, it will work even better in fifty, rather than the other way around.

Terrence Malick and Gordon Willis began their film careers within one year of each other; Malick's debut, the short film Lanton Mills, was completed in 1969, while Willis's first feature, The End of the Road, was released in 1970. Theirs was an era in which long takes were prized, and editing within scenes was deeply connected to the visual rhythms established by the cinematographer and, more importantly, the emotional meanings established by the screenwriter. In an interview in Vincent LoBrutto's Selected Takes: Film Editors on Editing, the great editor Tom Rolf observed, "It's much more important to learn what not to cut.... You learn that the scene is playing, you don't have to justify your existence by making a cut; it works." (Coincidentally, Rolf edited the last film Willis shot before retiring, 1997's The Devil's Own, directed by Alan J. Pakula.)

Yet Malick has come to reject this approach, leaving behind the clarity and precision of the great films of the '70s -- including his own Badlands -- for an editing style that seems, frankly, chaotic. Rolf says not to cut when a scene is playing without one. But after I saw The Tree of Life, I remarked to a friend that the movie didn't seem to contain any real scenes at all -- only fragments of scenes. The film is a series of snapshots, and it's hard to judge, exactly, what we're missing in all of the cutting. In this crucial way, the story (about a middle-class family in Texas in the 1950s) lacks any context at all, even though the film's admirers will point to the 2001-like context Malick tries to give it through the shots of the origins of life on Earth, etc., etc.

"[E]very cut interrupts the flow of storytelling," Otto Preminger said to Peter Bogdanovich. That was true for Preminger more than most. The great directors and editors know that those interruptions are often necessary, even essential. But most of the cuts in The Tree of Life are not necessary, let alone essential, and indeed they do interrupt our emotional involvement in the story.

At times, it felt like I was watching a 138-minute trailer for The Tree of Life. Steven Soderbergh's 1999 crime film, The Limey, is rarely discussed this days, but there's a daring sequence in which Peter Fonda's character, Terry Valentine, is introduced by way of a series of shots of him borrowed from later in the picture. As Soderbergh described it, it's supposed to be like a trailer for Terry Valentine. That was the point. But this sequence lasts for perhaps 20 seconds, not two hours and 18 minutes.

After the film was over, I overheard a number of audience members express their utter bewilderment at Malick's evasiveness -- there's no other word for it -- as a storyteller. To his credit, they were interested in his story, and hungry for more of it. They wanted more detail about the Brad Pitt character's frustrated musical ambitions, and less about dinosaurs and natural history.

One of my favorite films is Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon. Like The Tree of Life, it's set in the South in the '50s -- Louisiana instead of Texas. Like The Tree of Life, it depicts family life -- three (eventually four) sisters instead of three brothers. The character of the father is rather overbearing in both films. And tragedy strikes in both films, too. But the differences in style between The Man in the Moon and The Tree of Life are vast.

Mulligan respects Jenny Wingfield's brilliant, subtle screenplay much more than Malick seems to respect his own. (I hasten to add that I haven't read any of Malick's screenplays.) I say this because all of Mulligan's visual choices reinforce, rather than obscure, the point of a given scene.

Consider a scene late in the picture, after the tragedy of the film has occurred. The middle child, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), asks her mother, Abigail (Tess Harper), if she can skip going to church this Sunday and instead join her father (who always skips church and spends Sunday mornings fishing). The camera pans Dani into the living room, where Abigail is sitting down, holding Dani's newborn sister. She stops and asks her mother, who after a pause quietly says, "All right." Dani exits and the camera then moves in on Abigail. But the shot doesn't end on Abigail, as we think if might. Instead, the camera focuses on Dani, who we can see through a bank of windows behind Abigail. Abigail cranes her neck toward the windows as the camera moves beyond her and follows Dani through the windows, panning across them from left to right. When Dani gets in her father's pickup truck and she and her father leave, the camera again follows them, this time from right to left. The shot ends up back on Abigail, who after a pause, looks up. She is thinking of her eldest daughter, who is in her room upstairs. Like Dani, she, too, has been greatly affected by what has happened.

Well. This is an impeccably directed scene, and I can't see how its humanity would have been deepened if it had been filmed in ten shots rather than one. Or if the camera was swirling. Or if it was intercut with shots of outer space. The Man in the Moon proves that you don't have to show shots of the cosmos for a movie story to have cosmic significance.

An editor who worked with Mulligan, Sid Levin, said to me, "The rhythm and pacing of [Mulligan's] films are not of this time." Regrettably, the rhythm and pacing of The Tree of Life is very much of this time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Films of James Bridges

My new book, The Films of James Bridges, was published this past week. (You can purchase it here or here.) It took me three full years to research and write the book, during which time I worked on no other major projects. I was surprised to realize recently that I spent more time working on it than I did my previous book, an ambitious interview book about Orson Welles. Why did it take me so long to write about a director who made just eight films?

The fact of the matter is that Bridges didn't just make eight films. He did, and was, so much more. As I write in my preface, he was a tremendously gifted playwright; it's a pity that his brilliant play Bachelor Furnished has not been published in book form. He wrote sixteen episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including at least two that can rightly be considered classics ("The Jar" and "An Unlocked Window"). He directed plays by Tennessee Williams, Jack Larson, and Christopher Isherwood to great acclaim on the stage. His life was, I discovered, nearly as full as Welles's.

And, of course, there are the films. His greatest popular successes were The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome, and Urban Cowboy. But his greatest films were those made in between those big hits. As his partner in life and work, Jack Larson, explained to me, "When Jim would have a hit, he would want to make a personal film. When he was the goose that laid the golden egg... he would want to do a personal film and they were basically about what he knew and were romans a clef." I am convinced that September 30, 1955 and Mike's Murder are among the best movies of their era.

As I learned more and more about the variety of his accomplishments, the book grew from a critical study to something like a biography. I interviewed many of Bridges's most important friends and collaborators, including Gordon Willis, Norman Lloyd, Barbara Hershey, Debra Winger, Richard Thomas, Collin Wilcox, Ed Herrmann, and many, many more. I learned about his childhood and college years in Arkansas, which inspired September 30, 1955, and about his early days in Hollywood, where he was lucky enough to be mentored by the likes of John Houseman, Salka Viertel, Montgomery Clift, and others. All of which is detailed in my book.

Perhaps the late Kim Kurumada -- who produced Mike's Murder and Perfect, and worked on a number of other Bridges films in different capacities -- put it best: "Once you met him, you never forgot him." I never met James Bridges, but after spending three years researching his life and studying his deeply personal films, watching and re-watching them, in some ways I feel as though I have. And I will never forget him.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"Keeping Up With Sidney"

I take the title of this post from my friend David Baron, who worked as second assistant camera on the underrated A Stranger Among Us, directed by Sidney Lumet. Dave once said to me that there ought to be a sitcom called "Keeping Up With Sidney." He was referring to Lumet's famously fast-paced way of working (which eschewed shooting unnecessary coverage). When asked about it by an interviewer, Lumet said, "It's really just a question of my own energy level, my own tempo. I can't work slowly."

Upon learning of Lumet's death today at the age of 86, I again thought of those words: "Keeping Up With Sidney." It seems that they have another meaning, in addition to the obvious one. Because Lumet was making films well into his eighties (his last feature, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, was released in 2007), film critics and scholars really did have to "keep up" with him.

While his most famous films (like Dog Day Afternoon and Network) were released in the seventies, his work only got better as the decades passed. In the eighties, he made two remarkable films -- 1983's Daniel (from E.L. Doctorow's best novel) and 1988's Running on Empty (from a brilliant screenplay by Naomi Foner) -- which the director intended to be thought of as variations on a theme. In his fantastic book, Making Movies, Lumet summed up the theme of each picture in the same way: "Who pays for the passions and commitments of the parents? The children, who never choose those passions and commitments." Lumet could express the meanings of his films better than most critics.

Meanwhile, in the 2000s, Lumet directed a pair of terrific features -- Find Me Guilty and the aforementioned Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -- but he also went back to television (where his career began), as the executive producer of the fine A&E series 100 Centre Street

One of the directors on 100 Centre Street was Jerry London, a veteran of many memorable TV movies and mini-series, including Shogun. I had a chance to ask London about Lumet when I interviewed him for CinemaEditor magazine in 2008. Here is the relevant section of our conversation:

Peter Tonguette: ...several years ago you did a very interesting series, 100 Centre Street, which was produced by Sidney Lumet.

Jerry London: I heard that Sidney was doing a series. He wrote one of the best books on directing that's ever been written. It lays it out perfectly. I directed a couple of movies of the week for Howard Braunstein, who was the producer of the show. I called him and said, "I hear you're doing a show with Lumet. I'd really like to work on it."

Howard recommended me to Lumet and he called me. He said, "Jerry, you've got too many credits, you're overqualified." I said, "I really want to work with you." He said, "All right, send me some of your best stuff." So I sent him one of the thriller movies of the week I did and a couple of episodes. He called me and said, "I'm going to send you some scripts to read." He sent me the scripts and he wrote most of them -- he's a great writer.

I called him up a few days later and said, "I read the scripts. They're wonderful." He said, "Well, I looked at your stuff. I still think you're overqualified, but if you want to do the show, you got to come to New York on your own nickel and we'll talk." I flew to New York and I met him in his little office. We talked for a couple hours all about the philosophy of directing.

He said, "All right, I'm going to do the first one, you'll do the second ones, I'll do the third one, you'll do the fourth one..." All of a sudden I was alternating with Sidney Lumet!

London's awe was not misplaced, as even the most cursory glance at Lumet's filmography reveals. From 12 Angry Men to The Pawnbroker, from The Group to Serpico, Lumet truly was one of America's best directors.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brief encounters

Over the course of the nine years I have been writing professionally, I have been lucky enough to interview many people whose work I admire. In almost every case, the experience has been positive. I agree with what Bill Krohn (the estimable Los Angeles correspondent of Cahiers du Cinema) once said: that he has never been disappointed meeting a great filmmaker. I would modify that to say that I have rarely been disappointed talking to a great filmmaker, and the person needn't be a director or screenwriter, but can be an editor, cinematographer, actor, or a member of the crew.

Two of my favorite interviews in my book, Orson Welles Remembered, were with camera assistants R. Michael Stringer and Michael Ferris, who worked more closely with Welles than some more famous names. A few interview experiences were so great that I was inspired to write about them. See, for example, this brief essay I wrote for Editors Guild Magazine, about interviewing Robert Wise for my book.

My list of disappointing interviews is very short, though my brief conversation with the late Freddie Francis -- the brilliant cinematographer of The Innocents, The Elephant Man, and The Man in the Moon, among many others -- was certainly that. (It was as much my fault as his, and perhaps is the subject of a future blog.)

In my capacity as a filmgoer, rather than as a writer, I've also had some interesting, if fleeting encounters with great filmmakers. Perhaps the most memorable was the time I found myself sitting next to the legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who, along with his brother David and others, co-directed such classics as Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

Allow me to explain. In October of 2001, the Wexner Center for the Arts presented a retrospective of the films of Jim Jarmusch. It included all of Jarmusch's features to date, as well as a selection of the director's favorite films by others. One of the double-bills paired Jarmusch's Night on Earth with John Cassavetes's Love Streams, which remains one of the great filmgoing nights of my life.

I also attended the on-stage conversation between Jarmusch and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. My recollection is that the house was sold out, but I somehow managed to secure a front row seat. As I was waiting for the evening to begin, an older gentleman, holding a very deluxe, very expensive-looking digital video camera, sat down to my right. He began filming. When Jarmusch and Rosenbaum took the stage and started to talk, he continued filming. As fascinated as I was by what was being said -- and it was, indeed, a great conversation -- I couldn't help but wonder who the person next to me was, and what he was doing.

Eventually, Jarmusch began taking questions from the audience. I asked something about Jarmusch's use of long takes in films like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, and bemoaned the lack of long takes in many contemporary films. Just then, the man with the movie camera leaned over and whispered to me: "Great question! Right on!" (I remember his words exactly.)

A few days later, I asked Dave Filipi, the curator of media arts at the Wexner Center, if he could tell me who it was. It was then that I learned it was Albert Maysles. While I was already familiar with Maysles's work, I wouldn't have recognized him -- especially if I wasn't looking for him. Let alone expecting him to sit next to me at the Wexner Center. If I had, I suppose I would have asked for his autograph, or would have engaged him in further dialogue. But I was glad to learn, after the fact, that it was Maysles, and that he apparently thought enough of my question to stop what he was doing -- making a documentary -- and tell me so.

One final note: as far as I know, the footage Maysles shot of Jarmusch and Rosenbaum at the Wexner Center has never been shown. I later assumed that it was intended for an episode of the Sundance Channel series With the Filmmaker, in which Maysles profiled such directors as Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lucy and Lucille, Tom and Jerry

More than many directors, Leo McCarey seemed to enjoy being self-referential. For years, I've wondered why the female characters in several of his films were named either "Lucy" or "Lucille."

In The Awful Truth, Irene Dunne's character is named Lucy, as is Beulah Bondi's character in Make Way For Tomorrow (both films were released the same year, 1937). In McCarey's later masterpieces, Good Sam and My Son John, the characters played by Ann Sheridan and Helen Hayes, respectively, share the name Lucille.

It surely isn't a coincidence, and while I've yet to find a satisfactory explanation, I suspect there is something in McCarey's life story that inspired the usage of these names. Watching the second of McCarey's contributions to NBC's wonderful anthology series, Screen Directors Playhouse, 1955's Tom and Jerry, I was again reminded of McCarey's tendency to repeat himself.

Peter Lawford and Nancy Gates star as the eponymous married couple. Like Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, they are on the verge of separating as the story begins, and they eventually do. In one scene, Tom is speaking on the phone to his attorney (Charles Lane), who is admonishing Tom about the gravity of divorce. The scene is humorous because, as the attorney is telling Tom how great marriage is, he is becoming increasingly annoyed (in a very unflattering way) with his wife, who appears every few seconds to tell him that dinner is ready and he should get off the phone.

Well, this scene in Tom and Jerry is essentially a remake of a very famous scene in The Awful Truth, but with the genders switched. In the earlier film, the phone conversation is between Irene Dunne and her attorney, though the situation is identical. Both scenes end with the attorney characters losing patience with their spouses, before disingenuously telling their clients, "As I was saying, marriage is a beautiful thing..."

Of course, McCarey really did believe that marriage is "a beautiful thing," even though the above scene in The Awful Truth, as film scholar Diane Carson put it, points to the attorney's "hypocrisy of his public versus private persona," in boasting about marriage while behaving boorishly. But as Dave Kehr pointed out, describing the scene at the grandmother's chapel in An Affair to Remember, McCarey was "a deeply committed Roman Catholic for whom marriage was a sacrament." In Tom and Jerry, Lawford and Gates are incredibly touching as they find themselves slowly growing close again; Gates, in particular, shows great depth, rivaling the work of some of the best actresses McCarey ever directed, including Helen Hayes and Deborah Kerr.

Because McCarey was such a popular director -- The Awful Truth won him an Oscar for Best Director -- I think he very much wanted audiences to recognize the references he made to his films. My suspicion is he intended them to be taken in the same spirit as Alfred Hitchcock's cameo appearances.

With its charming performances, and terrific, witty dialogue by Mary McCarey, the director's daughter, Tom and Jerry is an irresistible delight, and for me, the best episode in the Screen Directors Playhouse series.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The new documentary on Joseph McBride

In terms of shaping my tastes as a filmgoer, 1999 was an important year for me. It was the year that I saw Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby and John Ford's Stagecoach on the big screen (as part of the Ohio Theatre's annual Summer Movie Series). The same summer, American Movie Classics aired a Ford marathon, which included an exceedingly rare showing of Peter Bogdanovich's documentary on the director, not to mention dozens of other Ford films seen by me for the first time.

It was also the year that I discovered the work of film scholar Joseph McBride, an equally momentous event. I loved interview books with directors, especially Bogdanovich's Who the Devil Made It and Truffaut's Hitchcock, so when I spotted McBride's Hawks on Hawks at my local bookstore, I bought it instantly. By then, I had seen several other Hawks masterpieces, in addition to Bringing Up Baby. Hawks on Hawks helped me to better understand the Hawks films I had seen, while also serving as a kind of preview to what riches awaited me as I explored more of his filmography. I remember particularly loving the way McBride arranged the interview material: not strictly chronologically, often veering into specific topics, such as "Camerawork," "Marilyn Monroe," or "Advice to Young Directors," for a few pages at a time.

In 1999, I also developed a major interest in Orson Welles; I had recently seen, in theatres, the re-release of The Third Man and the new edit of Touch of Evil. So I read the revised edition of McBride's extraordinary critical study, Orson Welles, as avidly as I had Hawks on Hawks.

When I realized that McBride was 25 when Orson Welles was first published, I was astonished -- and inspired. Suddenly, it didn't seem so terribly improbable that I could duplicate his feat of publishing a book on film at a young age. One of the things I'm proudest of in my career is that my own Welles book, Orson Welles Remembered, was published when I was just a few weeks shy of my 24th birthday. By that time, I had gotten to know Joe, who has graciously shared so much of his experience and expertise with me.

It was, then, with a great deal of personal and professional interest that I watched the new documentary, Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History, directed by Hart Perez.

The film is a guided tour through McBride's wide-ranging career as a critic, screenwriter, and biographer. Particular attention is given to the subjects of his three amazing biographies of John Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg, but many other personalities are discussed, too, including Hawks and Welles. McBride entertainingly relives his screenwriting career, which ranged from co-writing the cult classic Rock 'n' Roll High School to writing five American Film Institute Life Achievement Award specials in the eighties.

Some of the best stories concern McBride's youth. For example, I was delighted to be reminded that while Persistence of Vision (a collection of film criticism) was McBride's first published book, what would become High and Inside: The Complete Guide to Baseball Slang was the first book he actually wrote. He started work on it in 1963, when he was still a teenager. By the time he had the clout to have the book published, he recalls, he took the snobbish view that he didn't want it to sit beside his serious cinema books. Fortunately for us, common sense prevailed, and the first edition of High and Inside was published in 1980, two years before Hawks on Hawks.

"I like to look behind the official stories, which are usually lies," McBride says at one point, connecting his parents' careers as newspaper journalists to his own reputation as an investigative reporter, albeit one working in the mode of film scholarship. If McBride's youthful success was what inspired me years ago, his unending commitment to looking behind "the official stories" is what inspires me today.

The film features numerous stills from McBride's personal collection, though the visual highlight is saved for last, when he pulls out a ratty old box from his attic, containing the costume he wore for his performance in Welles's unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. McBride played, in a comic vein, a critic named Mister Pister in the film. Because of Welles's shooting methods (Other Wind was shot over the course of six years), co-star Mercedes McCambridge advised McBride to keep his costume in a box, in case Welles ever required his services again, and he has. Welles would be proud, in more ways than one.

Behind the Curtain is a testament to McBride's approach to his work, one any film student interested in exploring the golden age of Hollywood should see. It will have its world premiere at the Tiburon International Film Festival in April.