The late Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) was one of the most talented women of the 20th century. She received two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, the first in 1974 for her performance as Trixie Delight in Paper Moon; the second the next year for Blazing Saddles, in her unforgettable turn as Lily Von Shtupp, "The Teutonic Titwillow." In this movie, she sings possibly the dirtiest song ever written that never actually mentions sex, "I'm Tired"
In fact, her comic performances for Mel Brooks are what she is most remembered for: Blazing Saddles,Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and The History of the World, Part 1. She also did some brilliant work in early episodes of Saturday Night Live. If you have Netflix, check out her first appearance, from May 8, 1976. (Some of the clips are available on Hulu.) Her range is amazing: Marlene Dietrich, Pat Nixon, a twelve-year-old girl explaining sex to her friends at a pajama party, a film noire vamp singing "I Will Follow Him" with John Belushi's Jack Nicholsonesque private eye. There is also a sweet couple of minutes with Gilda Radner, which leads into Kahn singing this exquisite version of "Lost in the Stars" from Kurt Weill's musical of the same name (an adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, which just happens to be one of my favorite books). I remember watching this the first time it aired and, at the age of 14, being completely stunned. I've been looking for it again for 35 years. (I apologize for the poor quality of this clip. NBC is very stingy with their material, and this is the only version I have been able to find online, other than embedded in the complete SNL episode.)
Kahn was one of those people who got singing. What I mean is that, on top of a powerful voice with impressive range and lovely pitch, she knew how to present songs so that the lyric and music blended into a whole work of art, in the tradition of Sophie Tucker and Judy Garland, so that her singing became a true performance and a song-writer's dream. As funny as she was - and she was funny as all hell - this is what I love best about her as a performer. She could sing anything - from some blues to a duet with Sesame Street's Grover. Finally, here's a clip of her from the 1988 celebration of Irving Berlin's 100th birthday. Don't be surprised at how wonderful she is.
*Notes from Fred Astaire's first screen test. Something to keep in mind when reading the next rejection slip.
While Sonny is driving alone in his car, he's listening to the October 3,1951 radio broadcast of Russ Hodges calling the decisive third game of the Dodgers-Giants playoff -- a half-inning before Bobby Thomson ended the Dodgers' season with the "Shot Heard 'Round the World, which many consider the national pastime's all-time greatest moment.
Of the main cast, four pairs of actors share a birthday: Al Pacino and Talia Shire (April 25), Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall (January 5), James Caan and Sterling Hayden (March 26), and Abe Vigoda and Al Lettieri (February 24).
Whether it is, as many of us think, one of the two or three greatest of all movies, The Godfather is certainly a script that the certified US male of a certain class knows much of by heart. For more exquisite Godfather trivia (Jews play Sonny and Tessio, an Italian plays the Jewish Moe Greene) go here.
from Love Me Tonight
Jane Russell, who died this year, did some great duets with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Demain le bubble gum pour tous!
Quick: for the pleasure of being absolutely correct, what have they just sung?
-- "You say tomato, I say tomato"
-- Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
-- I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
-- Shall We Dance (Gershwin & Gershwin))
-- Shall We Dance (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
-- They Can't Take That Away from Me
For extra credit which if any won the Academy Award for best song of the year? Three were eligible.
Like other anglophiles who spent a few years in England and understands the heroic significance of World War II (Dunkirk, blackouts, Hail Brittania! pomp, circumstance, and the bulldog at Ten Downing Street!) to the English sensibility, I am a sucker for period dramas that English TV wizards put together for delighted consumption on both sides of the pond. I enjoyed the inaugural season of "Downton Abbey" on PBS last winter and, knowing that the second season played to even greater acclaim in London, look forward to its arrival in the States starting in a week or two. The last episode of season one left us in a garden party interrupted by a telegram announcing that "we" are now at war with Germany. The arc of the first season has taken us from the Titanic to the guns of August, and we're ready now for the endless war to end all wars. All well and good, but BUT and it's a big but please, I beg of the fates, do not allow the producers to do anything as cheap as they did in season number one when they shamelessly lifted a great scene from Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 movie starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon that won the year's best-picture Oscar. When Maggie Smith as the dowager garciously, and against her own egocentric impulses, gives the award for best locally-produced rose to a commoner, she is repeating Dame May Whitty's gesture at a climactic instant of Mrs. Miniver. It was the cheapest act of unacknowledged plagiarism that I have seen in many a day . . . unless they plan to make such acts of theft a recurrent feature of the feature, in which case I guess we can chalk it up to postmodernism in action. In any case, here's the theater trailer for Mrs. Miniver, which you should see. -- DL
Here’s my Christmas book gift recommendation. To (re-)discover a first-rate critic, and read about a life that went wrong in a harrowing way, you must read Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson (Fantagraphics Press), by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the New York Dolls, and Warren Zevon. He served as the record-review editor of Rolling Stone and was an A&R man for Mercury Records.
But this thumbnail sketch of Nelson’s career doesn’t begin to suggest his import as a writer and presence. Avery’s book is divided into two parts. The first is a biography titled “Invitation to a Closed Room: The Life of Paul Nelson.” The second is a collection of some of his most famous and/or influential pieces, titled “Good Critic Paul: The Writings of Paul Nelson.” The biography tells a story that might easily be transformed into the plot of one of the semi-obscure hard-boiled writers Nelson admired so much, a tale out of David Goodis, say, or Horace McCoy. It’s the story of a man who loved a certain kind of music, literature, and movie with a passion that eventually overtook his life. Nelson was a romantic, and prized tales of loners, misfits, and rebels. Whether it was Zevon’s song “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” the Lew Archer detective novels about missing children and bad parents, or the sere Westerns of Howard Hawks, Nelson prized above all portraits of men who performed with grace under pressure, who pursued doomed love affairs, who held themselves apart from society as independent agents even when what they really were were high-functioning hermits.
So it was with Nelson. His greatest influence and activity occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s. In a 1976 Village Voice essay entitled “Yes, There Is a Rock Critic Establishment, But Is That Good for Rock?,” Robert Christgau named the Establishment’s core quintet: John Rockwell, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau, Nelson, and Christgau himself. All but Nelson continue to have active careers; Nelson, however, became, in a Graham Greene phrase Nelson himself used too frequently, a “burnt-out case”: His taste and standards of excellence became so circumscribed, his natural inclination to hole up in his small, rent-controlled, pack-rat Upper West Side apartment re-watching old movies and re-reading The Great Gatsby and thrillers so self-seductive, that he slowly slipped away from the world.
Eventually, Nelson took a job behind the counter of Greenwich Village’s Evergreen Video store to make a bit of money; he pretty much ceased writing, and abandoned keeping up with new music. When he died, he was indigent and malnourished.
Does this sound like not the sort of book you’d give as a cheery Christmas present? Perhaps, but you’d be wrong: This volume is exhilarating. Avery tells with great energy Nelson’s tale, with copious details about the active period of his subject’s life, and in so doing limns a portrait of a certain kind of pop-culture/bohemian existence in the late-70s. And Avery’s generous selection of Nelson’s writings are certainly among Paul’s best, particularly Nelson’s profile of Ross Macdonald, “It’s All One Case,” and the harrowing account of helping to pull Zevon back from an addict’s life in “Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward’s Death.”
I knew Paul somewhat – he assigned me reviews at Rolling Stone; I visited his apartment a number of times to watch movies and admire his carefully maintained collection of first-edition mysteries. A picture of Paul among other friends taken at my wedding appears in this book. But my acquaintance with Paul Nelson doesn’t color my judgment of “Everything Is An Afterthought” as a first-rate book: It’s right there in the pages, in the opportunity to hear Nelson’s soft but authoritative voice. One of the subtexts of Avery’s book is that a critic can be as much of an artist as any artist he or she writes about. This is a portrait of an artist who declined to be an artist anymore.
At the piano is the song's composer, Hoagy Carmichael. The lyric is by Johnny Mercer born yesterday 101 years ago. Oh, the gent in the naval cap is Humphrey Bogart. The movie is To Have and Have Not script based on Hemingway's novel of that name, not his best alas but you can't have everything. I believe Bacall improvised the famous lines, Yoiu know to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips tiogether and blow. -- DL
*52. Akibiyori (Late Autumn) (11/13/60) (125 min.) [Sound Color] [buy it here]
A girl lives with her mother. Though she has had opportunities to marry, she refused, preferring to stay at home. The widowed mother, however, feels that her daughter is sacrificing herself and attempts to find her a suitable husband. The daughter opposes this until she comes to believe, mistakenly, that her mother is motivated by a desire to remarry. The mother goes back to the apartment and begins her life alone.
First, buy, rent, or check out of your local library Sondheim! The Birthday Concert, a 116-minute DVD issued in 2010 that contains several stunning performances of songs chosen from musicals composed wholly or partly by Stephen Sondheim on a March 2010 night celebrating his 80th birthday at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Then buy or check out of the library Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a coffeetable-size book without the dismissibility of a coffeetable book. It is fascinating and, to the surprise of no one who ever attended a Sondheim musical, well written. In it he offers this caveat: “Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.”
That’s why I recommend Sondheim! The Birthday Concert. You’ll hear glorious music set to equally glorious lyrics. Together they form, within the milieu of musical theater, poetry. Sondheim, a brilliant wordsmith, is guided by this dictum: “Content dictates form; less is more; God is in the details—all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.”
The compactness, concision, and other lexical mastery of “The Road You Didn’t Take,” a song from Follies, and “Move On,” a song from Sunday in the Park with George, provide a teaching tool of the highest order for any composer, lyricist, poet, or other writer.
Have these lyrics in your hands as you listen to and watch John McMartin, who was in the original Broadway production of Follies, perform that first song, which Sondheim describes as “a classroom example of subtextual writing” in Finishing the Hat. “I should add that the last two lines make me glow with self-satisfaction,” he adds. Why shouldn’t they? Every serious writer knows that feeling when it hits, when diction, syntax, and their interaction match the intent. There is no fat in these lyrics. None. And even without music, they unleash meanings and memories far beyond the spare or spartan. I wonder what Robert Frost, who died in 1963, eight years before Follies made its Broadway debut, would have thought of this song and its tip of a finished hat to his poem “The Road Not Taken”?
In 1951, Keisuke Kinoshita's Carmen Comes Home became the first Japanese film in color. Two years later, Kinugasa's Gate of Hell became an international hit. Ozu did not like the way red turned out on Eastman Kodak film. It wasn't until he was satisfied with the Agfa red looked that he proceeded to make a color film.
Kurosawa waited even longer. In his first color film, Dodesukaden, made in 1970, he was so dissatisfied with the way "reality" looked that he painted most of the sets with loud, garish colors so as to mute the harsh natural colors of his locations. Five years later, Dersu Uzala was made in beautiful 70mm widescreen; and finally in 1980 and 1985 we get the splendid gorgeous colors of Kagemusha and Ran.
And so the rainbow bursts ...
*49. Higanbana (Equinox Flower) (9/7/58) (118 min.) [Sound Color] [buy it here]
A daughter wishes to marry the man of her choice, but her father objects. Her mother understands her feelings, however, as does her friend from Kyoto. Eventually, the father is won over.
*45. Ochazuke no aji (Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice) (10/1/52) (115 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
The characters sing a lot in this film:
*41. Kaze no naka no mendori (A Hen in the Wind) (9/20/48) (90 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]A destitute woman is awaiting the demobilization of her husband when her child falls ill. She prostitutes herself to pay the hospital. When her husband returns, she tells all. He knocks her down the stairs but later apologizes, suddenly realizing all she has been through.
*42. Banshun (Late Spring) (9/1949) (108 min.) [Sound B&W) [buy it here]A young woman, somewhat past the usual marriage age, lives with her father in Kamakura. She is happy with him, and when she hears of one of his friends remarrying, she disapproves. The father, however, feels that he is keeping her from marriage. She refuses several offers. Then her aunt tells her that her father is thinking of remarrying. She is disturbed, but believing that this is what he wants, she agrees to get married herself. Father and daughter go on a final trip together to Kyoto. When they return, she is married. The father, who had no intention of remarrying, is left alone.
Ozu begins the film with four extraordinarily beautiful pillow shots:
The leisurely music begins in Cut 2; birds chirping.
*36. Hitori musuko (The Only Son) (9/15/36) (87 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
*37. Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka (What Did the Lady Forget?) (3/3/37) (73 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
*38. Todake no kyodai (The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family) (3/1/41) (105 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
*39. Chichi ariki (There Was a Father) (4/1/42) (94 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
*40. Nagaya shinshiroku (Record of a Tenement Gentleman) (5/20/47) (72 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
34. Kagamijishi (6/29/36) (24 min.) [Sound/Silent B&W clip of 17:36 here]
*36. Hitori musuko (The Only Son) (9/15/36) (83 min.) [Sound B&W] [buy it here]
*29. Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) (9/17/33) (101 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*30. Haha wo kowazuya (A Mother Should Be Loved) (5/11/34) (93 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*31. Ukikusa monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds) (11/23/34) (86 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*33. Tôkyô no yado (An Inn in Tokyo) (11/21/35) (82 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*29. Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy) (9/17/33) (101 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
A subtle and beautiful film about a boy and his father who live together in a tenement, the father working, the boy going to school. The father is attracted to a younger woman, and though nothing comes of it, the boy is worried and disappointed. Offered a new job in a distant town, the father goes off only to leave when halfway there to return to his son.
*30. Haha wo kowazuya (A Mother Should Be Loved) (5/11/34) (73 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
A family film about the relations between two half-brothers who have different mothers; good character delineation, somewhat spoiled by melodrama.
"I think that Ozu is the greatest director ever to work in the history of cinema, and if I had to choose his competitor it would be Mizoguchi and if I lived on a desert island I would just take all their films with me and that would be fine. That's cinema as far as I'm concerned.
And I think he's making great films from almost the start of his career. I don't think we find a steady ascent towards perfection and then a falling off like we do find in some directors. I don't think we find that zigzag up and down that we find in many great directors like John Ford. I think this guy had the hottest hand of anybody. I can't imagine a film of Ozu that I would actively call 'bad'" (Ozu scholar David Bordwell, interview from The Only Son  DVD).
How often have you heard someone refer to a film as being "poetic"? Googling "poetic film" took me here. These posts were made over a period of 14 months (8/09 to 10/10) and mention about 50 films. Not one Ozu film was proposed.
Michael Radford's brilliant Il Postino was mentioned several times; an obvious choice because the movie is about an actual poet (Neruda). So were such "dreamy" films as Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre, Tarkovsky's The Mirror (just about all of Tarkovsky's films feature the poetry of his father, Arseny), Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. All these so-called art films do in fact have either a dreamy, poetic quality about them or attempt to pretty much literally transform written poem to visual image (see most Tarkovsky, esp. Andrei Rublev)...
In these seven posts I will attempt to emphasize the particulars underlying my own personal assertion that the films of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) are Poetry in Moving Images -- works of art eternal in their splendor which inspire one to decipher meaning, probe form, and observe the cosmic humor and tragedy on display.
Of course, there is nothing else remotely like Ozu in the history of cinema (though many now copy him) -- this uniqueness alone requires close investigation.
I have a pretty massive DVD collection (2000+). When I buy DVDs, I have only one criterion: is this a film that I will want to watch more than once? When I re-watch an Ozu film, I feel like an old friend has dropped by. We'll talk about the same old stuff and enjoy each other's company and that's the plot!
A typical Ozu film has very little going on, plot-wise. But because the story is presented to us with such unassuming realism; familiar characterization, meticulous set design; rock-solid steady and invisible camera; and the acting so completely void of artifice, the end result is something startlingly transcendental. (It is said that Ozu treated his actors badly ... he made them do so many takes, some thought it cruel -- but it was his way of beating out the "performer" in the actor and obtaining something very "real").
If you've already seen some or all of Ozu's surviving films, I hope you'll enjoy re-watching them, perhaps grokking anew with some of my more unusual bullet-points in mind. If you are new to Ozu, I hope my writing makes you interested in seeing these masterpieces. Imagine how gratified I will feel if you become an Ozu-nut, like myself.
Yasujiro Ozu was born in Tokyo on December 12, 1903. His father was a fertilizer salesman. He and his brothers -- as was the custom in middle-class families at the time -- were sent to the countryside to be educated. Ozu was a rebellious, undisciplined student. He matriculated no further than middle school, preferring his twin passions of watching American films and drinking. He rarely saw his father between 1913 and 1923, but forged a potent relationship with his loving mother -- Ozu never married and lived with her until her death in 1962 at the age of 87. Ozu himself died just a year later -- the day before his 60th birthday, December 11, 1963. Carved on his tombstone is a single Japanese character -- mu -- the Zen nothingness that is everything.
Ozu's uncle got him his first job in the film industry as an assistant cameraman, which basically involved schlepping heavy cameras from place to place. He worked his way up to become an assistant director to the both now and then obscure Tadamoto Okubo, who "specialized in a kind of comedy which was called 'nonsense-mono' -- a running series of gags held together by a slight story line, a succession of chuckles intended to make the time pass" ["Ozu" by Donald Richie, p. 200] (must reading for any serious fan).
Ozu was quite satisfied with the position. He could drink to his heart's content (he was a heavy drinker, all his life) and had none of the responsibilities and worries that he quickly realized were the domain of the director.
Nevertheless, his friends urged him on and an incident (a waiter at the studio cafeteria insulted him) provoked him to overcome the inertia of his non-ambition. Besides, he had always loved film (almost all American -- at his job interview, he admitted to having seen only three Japanese films!) and probably felt the confidence to strike out on his own.
Ozu directed 54 films between 1927 and 1962.
Of the surviving completed films, I will discuss four in the first two posts; five in the third; four in the fourth and fifth; and three in each of the final two posts (the six color films) ...
*8. Gakusei romansu: Wakaki hi (Days of Youth) (4/13/29) (103 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*22. Tokyo no gassho (Tokyo Chorus) (8/15/31) (91 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*24. Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But...) (6/3/32) (100 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
*28. Hijosen no onna (Dragnet Girl) (4/27/33) (100 min.) [Silent B&W] [buy it here]
Join Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and an exciting group of poets and filmmakers as they introduce and discuss short films inspired by poems in this year's BAP! At this one-time event you will be able to:
Buy BAP 2011 and have it signed by David Lehman and contributing poets.
Print your own Motionpoems keepsake broadside on a Minnesota Center for the Book Arts letterpress.
See films inspired by BAP 2011 contributors:
Two Screenings: Tuesday, Oct. 25th at 6pm & 8 pm
Target Performance Hall
1011 Washington ave S.
Reception to follow each screening.
This event is free, and sure to be a scrumptious evening of synesthesia! Or should that be Cinesthesia?
Go here for further details.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.