Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

As they approach their final statement, venerable auteurs tend to reflect upon the import of their worldviews if not of cinema itself. So a new Clint Eastwood film, for instance, presents itself as an opportunity to traipse through a lifetime of fusing sound and image. Changeling took time out to honor the hypnotic power of movies while White Hunter, Black Heart, Blood Work, Gran Torino, etc. tried to locate the elasticity in his western/crime thriller personae. And now Jersey Boys continues this project by pulling his tough guy legacy even further out of shape.

At first blush, Eastwood seems one of the least likely directors to undertake the film adaptation of the Broadway hit chronicling the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Despite an astute musical ear, nothing in Eastwood's oeuvre (especially the sorry roadshow flop Paint Your Wagon) suggested an ear for musicals (or even musical biopics). But Valli's falsetto shook up the foundations of Italian-American machismo and provides Eastwood with yet another conduit for navigating the edges of masculinity. Delivered in that helium-cured voice, "Walk Like a Man" offered far more possibilities for persona-shaping than mere advice from a father to his son to hang tough.

Eastwood never shies away from this aspect of their music, particularly in his attention to the contributions of queer producer-writer Bob Crewe. Jersey Boys suggests that it was Crewe's camp lust for movies that influenced the creation of "Big Girls Don't Cry." He's watching Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, Billy Wilder, 1951) with the Seasons at one point and mouths every word of the scene when Jan Sterling gets slapped. When asked why she doesn't cry, Crewe responds with the title of their next number one hit. Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote "Big Girls Don't Cry," maintains that he discovered the line in Tennessee's Partner (1955) while Crewe claims, more plausibly, that he heard it in Slightly Scarlet (1956, both directed by Allan Dwan, curiously). Nevertheless, the exchange acknowledges the queer architectonics behind so much 1960s pop. Too bad he didn't include a scene where Crewe's latest boytoy inspires him to write "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

Eastwood seems less interested in hitting the biographical highlights than he is fashioning a sort of Wikipedia article with the direct addresses to the camera from various band members serving as links. Yes, it's that Joe Pesci, the actor, who introduced Gaudio to the group. And watch as he references his famous "How am I funny?" Goodfellas harangue in one scene.  No, we really didn't know much about homosexuality back then. "This was 1959; people thought Liberace was just theatrical." And look - there's Clint Eastwood on a TV screen. To a certain extent, all biopics function in this manner. But Jersey Boys feels eminently clickable. You just want to reach out and press on any character's face to find out that, sheesh, Frankie Valli and/or the Four Seasons had more hits than you remembered. It's an entirely appropriate biopic for 2014 and for a director actively shaping his legacy.

But Jersey Boys works most of all because it doesn't take much for a musical to least for music lovers. For the most part, Eastwood allows the songs to play out in their entirety which actually makes the 134 minutes move briskly. The actors, recorded live, perform worthy approximations of the hits and the Seasons' masterpiece "Sherry" plays out in its original form as the cast faux-freeze-frames after the requisite spontaneous outburst of song number at the end of the film. Eastwood has been criticized for lacking the flash necessary to film a musical. But as the Astaire-Rogers musicals have taught us, the music and the performers provide the flash. The director just needs to record it and Eastwood's sober approach here suits the subject perfectly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Corn’s-A-Poppin’ (Robert Woodburn, 1955)

It's refreshing for once to have heard about a freakishly obscure film and then have the opportunity to catch it on the big screen mere months later. Chicago programmer Patrick Friel hyped Corn's-A-Poppin' to me earlier this year and thanks to the preservation efforts of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, a gorgeous print was shown at the Music Box last night. And while it didn't quite live up to the hype, I bow nevertheless to the Society for rescuing this godforsaken thing.

J. R. Jones' terrific Chicago Reader review will remain the most thorough account of the film's background until a DVD with commentary shows up. And if it does shows up, it will be due to the fact that Robert Altman co-wrote the screenplay well before his days as a New Hollywood maverick. To quote Jones: "Corn's-A-Poppin' originated with Elmer Rhoden Jr., an old school pal of Altman's in Kansas City. Rhoden's father co-owned Commonwealth Theatres, a regional chain of movie houses, and his brother was chairman of the Popcorn Institute, a trade association; together they came up with the idea of a locally shot, popcorn-related feature that could play the circuit. To direct the movie, Rhoden turned to Robert Woodburn of the local Calvin Company, which cranked out 16-millimeter industrial films, and Woodburn brought along his colleague Bob Altman to help on the script." So Corn's-A-Poppin' comes off as a PRC or Monogram horse opera filtered through an industrial film mode of production complete with abysmal acting, creative framing, and crummy musical numbers (repetitive too - hey Johnny, what are you running after again?).

I anticipated something even grungier than that - a singular wonder along the lines of Ten Minutes to Live (Oscar Micheaux, 1932) or Glen or Glenda? (Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1953). And indeed, the scene transitions yank the viewer out of the story world in intriguing ways. A dinner party is introduced with an uncomfortable close-up of a pot of boiling spaghetti. Or the camera lingers too long on an actor after the last line has been delivered. And Dora Walls' remarkable performance as Agatha Quake seems piped in from Mars with an irritating squeal that crosses a lock-jawed Edith Massey with Gigglesnort Hotel's Blob. But overall, Corn's-A-Poppin' tells a pretty straightforward tale about a shifty press agent attempting to bring down popcorn magnate Thaddeus Pinwhistle (although someone please explain to me how Pinwhistle finally figures out the swindle). The story world is simply too sturdy, lacking the cognitive dislocations of the most unique orphan films. It certainly has more character than the long-lusted-after but disappointing Howdy Broadway. But I found the Soundie-style shorts shown before the feature far more compelling, especially The Stoneman Family's speedfreak "Goin' Up Cripple Creek" which burned a hole right through the Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Bill Anderson, and Norma Jean shorts that came before it.
Here's a trailer for Corn's-A-Poppin' which shows the nifty number when Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers get pelted by popcorn:

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ulysses criticism in an Ithaca stylee

What was the most trenchant insight from Declan Kiberd's introduction?

Men had killed and maimed one another’s bodies in the name of abstract virtues, so Joyce resolved to write a materialist ‘epic of the body’, with a minute account of its functions and frustrations. Soldiers were dying in defence of the outmoded epic codes which permeate The Odyssey, so Joyce set out to remind readers that if Odysseus – also known as Ulysses – was a god, he was most certainly a god with a limp. In this book, the very ordinariness of the modern Ulysses, Mr Leopold Bloom, becomes a standing reproach to the myth of ancient military heroism. Man’s littleness is seen, finally, to be the inevitable condition of his greatness. What one man does in a single day is infinitesimal, but it is nonetheless infinitely important that he do it. By developing Bloom’s analogies with Odysseus, Joyce suggests that the Greeks were human and flawed like everybody else.

What was the second most trenchant?

The French Revolution, which purported to put an end to all myth-making, instituted the myth of modernity, the notion of perpetual renewal which animated spirits as diverse as those of Ezra Pound (‘make it new’) and Leon Trotsky (‘permanent revolution’).

What word from Ulysses should come back as twenty-first-century slang?

Phiz - a person's face or expression; abbreviation of physiognomy

What word did Blogspot's spell checker improbably, but intermittently, recognize?


What passage might Margaret Mitchell have read?

Gone with the wind. Hosts at Mullaghmast and Tara of the kings.

What's the best dis in the entire novel?

He's a caution to rattlesnakes.

Give an example of another dis.

Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.
What word might bring Skrillex to mind?


Show a passage that is the literary equivalent of cinematic crosscutting.

—This is real Irish cream I take it, he said with forbearance. I don’t want to be imposed on.
Elijah, skiff, light crumpled throwaway, sailed eastward by flanks of ships and trawlers, amid an archipelago of corks, beyond new Wapping street past Benson’s ferry, and by the threemasted schooner Rosevean from Bridgwater with bricks.

What's the most moving moment in the novel?

Fa is dead. My father is dead.

Is there a b, d, c repetition?

Ben Dollar called. Begone, dull care.

What name of a future number one Hollywood box office star can (almost) be found in the novel?

Micky Rooney

Give an example of Joyce's concern for his characters even after they die.

Questioned by his earthname as to his whereabouts in the heaven-world he stated that he was now on the path of pralaya or return...

Is there a passage that discusses the effect of hanging on erections while touching on the insufferability of the main character?

That can be explained by science, says Bloom. It's only a natural phenomenon, don't you see, because on account of the...

And then he starts with his jawbreakers about phenomenon and science and this phenomenon and the other phenomenon.

The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae and consequent scission of the spinal cord would... 

Is there a passage that touches on the insufferability of the main character while ecstatically praising him?

And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe's in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel.  

Is there bit of slang that is too silly to come back in the twenty-first century having likely been written as a parody in the first place?
All Tuesday week afternoon she was hunting to match that chenille but at last she found what she wanted at Clery's summer sales, the very it.

Is there a parody of bad literature?  

Her griddlecakes done to a golden-brown hue and queen Ann's pudding of delightful creaminess had won golden opinions from all because she had a lucky hand also for lighting a fire.

Give another example.

He would be tall with broad shoulders (she had always admired tall men for a husband). 

Give two more examples of cinematic crosscutting. 

he put in the incense and censed the Blessed Sacrament and Cissy Caffrey caught the two twins and... 

he never took his eyes off of her and then Canon O’Hanlon handed the thurible back to Father Conroy and...   

Is there a moment when eroticism is allowed to blossom in the public sphere?

At last they were left alone without the others to pry and pass remarks.

Is this eroticism consummated in a passage that taps into the corny yet ecstatic metaphors for orgasm?

And then a rocket sprang and bang shot bund and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

What fleeting impression might jumpstart an essay on the relation between cinema and Ulysses

Mutoscope pictures in Capel street: for men only. Peeping Tom.  

What are the World’s Twelve Worst Books?

Froggy and Fritz (politic), Care of the Baby (infantilic), 50 Meals for 7/6 (culinic), Was Jesus a Sun Myth? (historic), Expel that Pain (medic), Infant’s Compendium of the Universe (cosmic), Let’s All Chortle (hilaric), Canvasser’s Vade Mecum (joumalic), Love-letters of Mother Assistant (erotic), Who’s Who in Space (astric), Songs that Reached Our Heart (melodic), Pennywise’s Way to Wealth (parsmonic). 

Are there moments when Ulysses seems to parody itself?  

To cut a long story short 
No pun intended 

Is there a prediction that this novel would be immortal while adhering to the theme of finding the heroic in the very ordinariness of modern personhood? 

If Stephen would continue to live until he would attain that age in the year 3072 A.D...

What's the one line you remembered from your attempt to read Ulysses in junior high?

he can stick his tongue 7 miles up my hole

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