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February 14, 2004

TV Alert

Dear Friedrich --

It's always struck me that one of the best uses people make of blogs and the web is trading tips. What a great way to learn and compare tastes. Terry Teachout (here), for instance, couldn't be more generous with recommendations -- and, for an arts fan, what could be better than having easy access to Terry Teachout's brain?

Early on in our own blogging careers, it occured to me that, since there's little I like better than combing through the TV Guide for good-quality programming, I might be able to make my own contribution to this swapping-tips thing by recommending upcoming TV shows. TV -- what an underappreciated medium, at least if used right. I had a good time listing shows, but after a few months found that I'd let the pleasure become a burden, and so put an end to my project.

Still ... hmm.... It was a nice thing to do ... It's not as if I've lost my passion for TV schedules ... It's great to be helpful ... TV's a cultural resource nearly everyone has access to ... Hmm, movies ... Too many youngsters these days have a lousy sense of movie history ... Movies pre-1990 have become a kind of classic art ... I love these movies ... Maybe there's a way I can spread the love ... Maybe there's a way to do so without getting overwhelmed by any oppressive sense of duty ... Hmm.

Outcome of all these ruminations: I'm going to have another try. Here's hoping a few visitors find my efforts useful. This time around, I'm giving myself a theme and setting myself some limits: three items per posting, and all of them on the theme of movie history pre-1990. Which'll mean a lot of Turner Classic Movies, naturally, and god bless Ted Turner.

So, some classic-movie recommendations for all you Tivo, DVR and VCR junkies.

Three by Hitchcock. All personal preferences aside (I'm more drawn to some other filmmakers myself), it's useful to think of Hitchcock as the central figure in classic movie history. His work and career bring together more of the themes and (ahem) issues movie buffs wrestle with than anybody else's: entertainment vs. art (or is it entertainment as art, or even vice versa?); moral ambiguity and voyeurism; projection, in both the psychological and technical sense; the line, if such exists, between art and porn; the connections between violation and seduction.

A Blowhard tip here: I've found that critics, fans and profs often oversell how thrilling Hitchcock's films are. They're sometimes pretty scary and they're sometimes pretty suspenseful. But I've found it best to take his films as meditations, as sex games, as philosophy puzzles, as sketchbooks ... All of them draped over suspense armatures. Taken as such, they're perfectly amazing and seldom disappointing. Watch how Hitchcock controls and manipulates point of view, and how he builds his movies out of shifts in p-o-v -- who's looking at whom? Keep alert to how he changes moods; watch how the mood can turn from romantic to sinister in just one beat. You want folding-back-on-itself self-reflexivity? Check out "Rear Window" and "Vertigo." You want the subterranean connections between romance, spying, suspense, arousal, and love? Check out "Notorious" -- to what extent are people who love each other also using each other? Have you ever watched someone like Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" and wondered in a general way where all those icy, dangerous, blonde movie icons come from? Watch almost any of Hitchcock's movies. Whoa! Icy ... blonde ... mysterious ... blank ... That's right: those icy, mysterious blondes represent The Hypnotic and Erotic and Dangerous Nature of the Movie Medium Itself. Spooky, huh? And, by the way, you'll find few people who'll take much issue with the assertion that Hitchcock was the greatest visual storyteller in the medium's history. Not a minor point, this.
* Vertigo: TCM, Sunday 2-15 at 5:30 pm.
* Rear Window: TCM, Sunday 2-15 at 8 pm.
* Notorious: TCM, Thursday 2-19 at 6 pm.

Lee Strasberg: The Method Man. A decent, informative documentary about one of the acting-guru gods of the Method world, full of good cultural history. You get to meet some of the key Method people; you get a sense of where they were coming from and what they valued; you get a taste of the beauty, the passion, the nonsense and the craziness. (For a much more comprehensive treatment of the Method, I enthusiastically recommend Steve Vineberg's book Method Actors, which is buyable here. Here's my own posting about the Method.) Although movie performing has, by and large, moved on, the Method's impact is still all around us. That whole sensitive-boxer thing? That whole sweaty, sulky, denim-sexiness thing? Actors who mumble, who "physicalize," who grope for words, and who make a big show out of how much they hate stardom? All those ambiguously sexual but brutal guys peering resentfully and inarticulately out at you from under hurt eyebrows? All those blondes in underwear acting slutty and having breakdowns? All that imagery, all that iconography has its sources in the Method. And Strasberg -- the acting coach as prophet and psychoanalyst -- was a Method giant.
* Lee Strasberg: The Method Man: Ovation, Thursday 2-19, at 8 pm, and then later that same night at midnight.

Three by John Huston. One of the things that's seldom stated flat-out about movie history is that much of it has been made by alpha males -- five-star general types with too much charisma; domineering, dick-centered egomaniacs; self-centered monsters who are half politician and half poet. I can't tell you what a shockeroo it was when I emerged from my movie-mad academic cocoon and got a taste of what moviemakers are really like. Good lord: they aren't the sensitive, articulate artist-intellectual types I'd been led to believe! (A few exceptions -- but in my experience only a few -- allowed for.) Why, why ... They're assholes. Not to worry: I've calmed down about this since. Still, whatever their talents and gifts, and no matter how sensitive their work can be, moviemakers are usually cast-iron creatures, capable of sucking the life out of you and then forgetting your name. I don't mean this as a criticism -- this kind of energy and constitution simply seems to be what it takes to make feature movies.

John Huston's movies are probably as frank about such alpha-dick matters as any ever made. The usual movie-intellectual's way of justifying Huston's work is that his movies present a critique of masculinity. Well, and fully intending the semi-pun here, balls to that. I take his movies to be not critiques but enactments of alpha-masculinity; they're about the thrills and challenges such a man demands and that such a life can -- perhaps -- be made to deliver. Huston's great at portraying guys for whom life simply has to be an adventure, guys who do these kinds of things because ... well, because they have to. This is masculinity as a kind of brutal compulsion -- and a compulsion that has its heroism and grandeur, however absurd and destructive. Yo, youngsters: put down those copies of Jane and Maxim, set aside the videogames and cellphones, and check out what this mysterious thing called "real masculinity" once was. Hint: it wasn't some MTV "Spring Break," frat-boy put-on.
* The Man Who Would Be King: TCM, Wednesday 2-18 at 10 pm.
* The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: TCM, Friday 2-20, 11 pm.
* The Maltese Falcon: TCM, Saturday 2-21 at 6 pm.

Good god, but I've got no patience with Americans who bitch about being movie-culture-starved! Why, if they only knew ... These days, if you've got a halfway decent cable connection -- one that brings in Sundance, IFC, and TCM -- you've got in-home access to the equivalent of a good rep house. Add Bravo, AMC, A&E, and Ovation for documentaries about movies and stars, and you've got a resource I'd have loved to have had all those centuries ago when you and I were kids.

And, goll-dang it, then there are all those films and documentaries coming up this week that, because of my self-imposed restrictions, I just couldn't mention above. For example, there's that fascinating German documentary about Leni Riefenstahl (Sundance, Wednesday at 3 a.m.) -- hey, here's my own posting about Leni Riefenstahl. Chris Marker's ineffably poetic short sci-fi movie La Jetee -- the source for Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" -- shows up this week on Sundance, Thursday at 8 am and at 8:30 pm. James Whale's beyond-classic, untoppably high-camp Bride of Frankenstein is on TCM Monday at 5 a.m. And Bruce Beresford's unsentimental priests-and-Indians historical epic Black Robe -- as dark, bloody, and terrifying as a horror movie -- is on IFC, Tuesday at 1 a.m.

But no! I vowed that I'm going to limit myself to only three items, dangnab it ...



posted by Michael at February 14, 2004


In-home viewing on a TV, no matter the size, is no substitute for a good rep house. For image quality (not to mention size, depth and detail), you must have film.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 14, 2004 8:46 PM

Not being as much of a connoisseur as Mr. Hulsey (I'm still willing to watch VHS tapes instead of DVD's, that's how unpicky I am!)---thanks for the tips. They look great.

And---"I take his movies to be not critiques but enactments of alpha-masculinity; they're about the thrills and challenges such a man demands and that such a life can deliver. Huston's great at portraying guys for whom life simply has to be an adventure, guys who do these kinds of things because ... well, because they do. This is masculinity as a kind of brutal compulsion -- and a compulsion that has its heroism and grandeur, however absurd and destructive."

Wow. That's such a great description of Huston. Somebody ought to pay you to do some writin'. That description makes me think so much of "Chinatown"--in which he appeared but didn't direct. Polanski sure got the Huston thang down in that move, though.

Posted by: annette on February 14, 2004 10:14 PM

Tim -- I'm a big fan of film, partly for the quality of the image, partly for the size, partly also for the experience of getting off your ass and seeing something in a social setting with other people. Changes a lot of things, and it's important to remember to give yourself a real film experience from time to time. On the other hand, as a film buff I've put up with a lot of lousy prints, a lot of lousy sound, a lot of awful circumstances, and with weirdo film-buff audiences and inconvenient schedules. And DVD-watching on a big Sony screen ain't a bad replacement for that. It's even a step up. But you're right -- there's no substitute for a first-class film presentation. Never has been and, judging from the quality of digital projection that I've seen thus far, never will be. I saw some Keaton, some Sjostrom and some Gance presented with orchestras at Radio City -- talk about mind-blowing experiences.

Annette -- Huston was an amazing, appalling guy, wasn't he. Did you ever look at his autobiography? Fascinating, mesmerizing, horrifying. How can someone be so full of himself and self-centered? Made me see Anjelica in a whole new light -- hey, she survived having such a daddy. Couldn't have been easy.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 14, 2004 11:39 PM

For image quality (not to mention size, depth and detail), you must have film.

Which is great as long as you HAVE film, not to mention something to view it on. It's the ideal, yes, but it's not always a viable proposition. I'd much rather see Berkeley Square in a pristine 35mm print on a big screen than the crummy nth-generation bootleg video of it that I have, but frankly I'm never going to see it that way. I can be a purist and refuse to settle for less than ideal conditions, or I can actually watch the film.

Posted by: James Russell on February 15, 2004 2:03 AM

I'm still willing to watch VHS tapes instead of DVD's, that's how unpicky I am!

HA! Alas, I've become a bit of a digital snob and the only times I watch VHS now are when it's something I've recorded off TV or when it's not available on DVD...

Posted by: James Russell on February 15, 2004 2:10 AM

Yep---for one of the most appalling episodes, see Huston's treatment of Montgomery Clift on the set of "Freud." And yes---I've always found Anjelica rather interesting for exactly that reason. When she was growing up, and Huston had grown tired of her mother, he lived in the "big house" on an estate in Ireland and she and her mother lived in the "little house." When she was with Jack Nicholson, he had his mansion in the Hollywood Hills on the grounds of which which he built a guest house---she lived in the guest house. And she said yes, it did occur to her, that she had recreated the "big house/little house" thing of her parents. More power to her, she seems happy today.

Posted by: annette on February 15, 2004 6:12 AM

I'd rather watch an old VHS of Coppola's One From the Heart than the new DVD (which has a new, inferior version). Otherwise, I'm a digital snob when it comes to home viewing.

The major plus with DVD is that it's compelling studios to restore those crummy old prints. Now, on those rare occasions when I get to see an old movie on a theater screen, the print is usually in near-pristine condition.

Still, I prefer even crummy film prints to digital projection or home viewing. When I saw Lawrence of Arabia on a screen, the print was in awful condition, as if it had been dragged through the desert sands. But can you imagine trying to see that film on a TV? Even when a reel of film is about to burn up in the projector, I can see things in the image I couldn't make out at home.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 15, 2004 3:25 PM

I can be a purist and refuse to settle for less than ideal conditions, or I can actually watch the film.

BTW, I settle for less than ideal conditions all the time. (I live in semi-rural Virginia, after all.) But I don't count myself as actually having "seen" a film until I see it under conditions I consider adequate.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 15, 2004 3:28 PM

I'd rather see the restored Metropolis on DVD(which is _astounding_, by the way) than the half-butchered film versions that I've seen over the years.

Restored my faith in Fritz Lang, it did.

Posted by: Eric Brown on February 15, 2004 7:41 PM

Let me get right to the point: I'm not a movie buff. I've never been able to understand how "movies" can become so much of a person's life as to nearly dominate it.

To me, they've always fallen into the category of comic books....interesting for a while but eventually you throw them away. So when people start talking about "scenes" and specific details and ooooh and aaaaah (those are 2 new verbs I've just coined) about certain actors, directors etc., well, I realize they and I live on different planets.

It's the same with the Oscars. Supposedly they're taking place in a couple of weeks (it's been pounded into me by all forms of media recently is how I know).

But if you look at the actors (-treesses) one thing stands out for me: they..all..look...exactly...the...same. I mean it....they all have this characterless, shallow look about they were all molded from the same cookie cutter. I simply can't get worked up about it.

I don't mean to spoil your fun about all this.....but movie buffs should realize that to people like me, frothing about cinema minutae is a gigantic yawn.

Posted by: Alo Kievalar on February 16, 2004 3:58 AM

Hear that movie buffs? You bore poor Alo.

Posted by: average joe on February 16, 2004 7:32 AM

If you're like me, you probably see Huston's Maltese Falcon on TV every time Turner Classic Movies runs it. So you remember that when Sam Spade leaves Gutman's apartment, he pushes the elevator button. You may also have noticed that he hesitates for a moment.

Now, the big question: Why does Spade hesitate?

If you're watching Maltese Falcon in an honest-to-God movie house, the answer is obvious: His right hand is shaking. This is the only moment in the film where Huston and Bogart crack Spade's hard-boiled facade, ever so slightly, to show us that the man is frightened. Despite Gutman's strained civility (or perhaps because of it), Spade knows he's barely made it out of that place alive.

Without knowledge of his terror, the machinations in the second half of the film are undermotivated; they seem like obfuscation for its own sake, rather than Spade's desperate effort to save his own skin. But you won't notice this crucial moment on a television screen, because the picture is too small and fuzzy for you to make out this vital detail.

I wonder how much of our "movie mythos" stems from television images we could never quite see.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 17, 2004 4:02 AM

Mr. Hulsey:

Maybe you can explicate something for me. At the climax of the "Maltese Falcon" Spade tells Brigid O'Shaunnessy that he know she killed his partner, Archer. How? Because Archer's coat was buttoned. That is, Archer didn't think he was in danger, or he would have had his coat open so he could go for his own gat. Now Spade goes and looks at Archer's body at the very beginning of the story, as soon as he hears of Archer's death. So he knows the solution to the mystery from the get-go. If so, his involvement with the Falcon must be motivated by greed, because he's not just playing for time until he figures out how to avenge his murdered partner. Do you agree or not?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 17, 2004 5:01 AM

I hear ya on the evils of pan-n-scan, Tim!

It's going to be a WHILE before digital reachs, let alone passes, the resolution of film.

Oh, and ditto on the sentiment that "Too many youngsters these days have a lousy sense of movie history ... Movies pre-1990 have become a kind of classic art". I noticed this tendency in my wife the other week (she's 22, I'm 33); she was talking about a movie from the 80's I wanted to watch as if it were ancient, and that all such films and older were too mouldy to watch except in the most extreme cases.

It actually kind of, now that I think about it, feels like my attitude towards anything not in color in the 70s. Her cohort seems to feel the same about pre-digital effects movies.

Posted by: David Mercer on February 17, 2004 5:05 PM

Good point, Friedrich. The final scene with Spade and O'Shaughnessy may constitute the film's emotional climax, but as far as the central mystery goes it's a bit of an afterthought. (Again, as with most of the film, this final scene is surprisingly faithful to the Hammett novel.)

I've always thought of the quandary as follows: Throughout the film (and the book), Spade seems more interested in why Archer was killed than in who killed him -- as you suggest, he already knows the latter. But knowing the culprit's identity won't mean very much if her motives are unclear.

Establishing a strong motive for O'Shaughnessy won't hurt his attempts to clear his own name, either. And if he gets rich in the process ... well, as he notes, that would be another item on the plus side.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 17, 2004 9:42 PM

I noticed this tendency in my wife the other week (she's 22, I'm 33); she was talking about a movie from the 80's I wanted to watch as if it were ancient, and that all such films and older were too mouldy to watch except in the most extreme cases.

I understand her feeling. '80s movies are mouldy, in a way that really old films are not. The prints are faded, the color is washed out, and unless you give these films a thorough, frame-by-frame restoration, they're very nearly unwatchable. (Lucas noted that the original negative of his Star Wars trilogy was practically on life support prior to his "Special Edition" rerelease.)

Contrast with Gone with the Wind. The 1939 film has been the subject of numerous rereleases, but has required far less restoration work than "special releases" from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Only the old nitrate prints have proven more volatile and unstable than today's color film stock. At least today's film just loses its emulsion, without actually catching fire.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on February 18, 2004 1:19 AM

I wonder how much of our "movie mythos" stems from television images we could never quite see.

Is TV to blame necessarily, or the quality of the prints? For years I had an abysmal copy of Howard Hawks' Scarface that was probably taken from an umpteenth-generation 16mm reduction and copied (badly) to video. Then I got a copy taped off TCM using a vastly better print and the difference left me agog. For the first time I could actually make out the scar on Paul Muni's face.

That was a case, though, where I knew my old copy was a bad one. In the case of Citizen Kane, I didn't realise my old copy of it (taped off TV in 1990) was as bad as it is until I got it on DVD last year. Revelatory. In my old copy, you can barely tell that's a "no trespassing" sign at the beginning, let alone make out what's on it.

These were both cases where two different copies of each film looked vastly different on TV, so I don't know if you can always pin the blame for poor quality images on the small screen. As they say, garbage in, garbage out.

Posted by: James Russell on February 19, 2004 2:29 AM

Michael: Thanks for the recommendations! I am currently without cable (that and a new, larger television will happen after I move to a new apartment), but I've written your choices down for future viewing.

By the way...for a strange film-on-television experience, watch "Around the World in 80 Days" (the 1956 version) on a 13" television. It becomes a different (and rather boring) movie, because the long, dazzling panoramic shots become pointless dead air.

Posted by: Steve Casburn on February 23, 2004 2:09 PM

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