Monday, December 26, 2022

Babylon: Damien Chazelle, Have a Little Respect

I knew I was going to have a strong reaction to "Babylon," but I just had to see it for myself. And I just had a small, teeny tiny bit of hope that the greats of the era would not be disrespected. Alas.

I've seen most reviews that pretty much call this a hot, steaming mess and I can't disagree. There are, however, moments that capture the incredible and emotional impact of the movies that kept me engaged and hoping, hoping, hoping.

As a fan of silent film and early Hollywood and all that jazz, the references to actual people and to film and literary sources are hard to ignore. Brad Pitt's character of Jack Conrad is clearly based on John Gilbert, although it is not completely factual. His is the most compelling character, and Pitt is very good. His portrayal of a self-aware star in twilight is probably the most insightful one in the film. Pitt is getting that world-weary bon vivant thing down pat.

The Real Deal: John Gilbert

Margot Robbie's Nellie LaRoy is a cruel portrayal of a star based, I'm sure, on Clara Bow. She is wild, her ridiculous father is her manager, her mother is in an asylum, she can cry on cue by thinking of home and, horror of horrors, she comes from New Jersey and sounds it. I can hear Louise Brooks in Kevin Brownlow's series "Hollywood" talking about Bow and the fact that nobody would know what Clara would do at a party because she was from Brooklyn. But if the character is based on Clara Bow, this great star with a truly tragic life deserves better. Margo Robbie is fine in a poorly written role, but I pray someday David Stenns' "Runnin' Wild" is made into a film and that Clara's life is treated with the respect she deserves. And honestly, I don't think anyone ran around town quite as naked as Ms. Robbie's character.

The Real Deal: Clara Bow

Speaking of respect, nobody in this film seems to have any for themselves or anyone else. And the scenes of ridiculously wild parties - well, I'd just say to the director that you don't have to actually become a debaucher yourself in order to show debauchery. 

Jean Smart probably makes the most sense as a gossip queen with the deliciously mashed up name of Elinor St. John (Elinor Glynn + Adela Rogers St. John), She gives Pitt's Jack Conrad a dose of reality amid his world of fantasy: namely that your career is dead, but you'll live forever on celluloid. Deal with it.

There is a character who is sort of Anna May Wong and a particularly nasty caricature of a Fatty Arbuckle type. It can be kind of fun trying to pick out the thinly disguised celebrities of the era.

I could go on and on about this thing, but the sad part is that every once in a while the love of the magic of film that sneaks in and that makes it tolerable. It's all wrapped up with a character from the silent era watching "Singin' in the Rain" in a theater and, at first weeping with nostalgia for that time and then, finally, becoming one of Norma Desmond's wonderful people out there in the dark, caught up in the story, lost in the magic of movies.

See it if you're curious or just watch Gene Kelly and company. 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Alone at the Movies

To share or not to share... It is a question for this movie lover. All my life I have longed to share this love, to discuss and share this particular passion with enthusiasm. And yet yesterday, when I settled into my theater seat, alone, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of sheer bliss.

It is only alone in the dark that I can truly make that magical connection. My heart space opens to its inner landscape and allows whatever is happening within those silver shadows to take over. It is all so very private. Tears flow freely when I am alone, my chest swells with love when I alone, and I truly allow something to touch my true self, something I can never do in the company of others.

Maybe this happens because my initial love of film happened while watching television. It was a lonely pursuit which even called for passing up a trip to the mall with friends because Wuthering Heights was on. Shopping at Lerner versus getting lost in the brutal romance of Laurence Olivier...not much of a choice for me. But I was a solitary kid and have remained so after all these years; the perfect candidate for a single seat in the dark.

It's not that I don't love sharing this passion by blogging, going to festivals or on social media (which allows me to share while remaining solitary - kind of a jackpot).

As an adult, those solitary experiences have become a road map or guide to that innermost space in me , the one behind and beneath those carefully constructed ramparts that life demands we build to survive. And when the castle is breached, oh what joy. When Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin engage in a silly, uninhibited dance as the credits roll at the end of "All of Me," I unfailingly burst into tears. I think they are tears of happiness, but I'm not sure. The sight of such unbridled, primal joy always cracks through that armor and finds its way to my true heart. And, oh, when Rocky Sullivan, in all of his swagger and power lets that light into his heart at the end of "Angels With Dirty Faces," yes, my own heart opens in recognition and surrenders.

Surrender. That seems to be the right word. A surrender in the dark that allows that sliver of light to find its way to a place where there in no judgment. Oh cinema, I open to your power and your story and together there is total trust alone there in the dark.

But there is something else - a bit of a paradox. Experiencing it truly alone, even in the company of others is one thing. It is private and precious. Yet how to explain that joy when shared with strangers in the same space. One of my most treasured movie-going experiences is this shot of Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind." The theatrical re-release in 1967 was so exciting to this barely teen-aged kid. I remember they gave out beautiful color programs (I'm sure I still have it somewhere) and in a packed theater there was an audible and collective gasp from probably every female in the audience. Yes, my heart stopped for a second, too, but knowing that everyone felt what you felt was sublime and fun. Just remembering that moment fills my heart close to bursting. 

And, truly, I will never forget the laughter during the baked beans scene in "Blazing Saddles." The dialogue was drowned out by laughter.

Preston Sturges got it in "Sullivan's Travels." 

Times do change and a lot of what is considered entertaining has passed me by, I fear (although I've always had at least one foot firmly planted in decades before my time). The theater yesterday was almost empty and even though talking, crunching, sniffing, strange body parts too near me and cell phones glowing in the dark irritate me, I felt a little sad. I'm torn between sharing with live strangers, sharing in silence (as here), and holding that experience close within my heart because, in the end, there are no words to adequately describe the love. But, being human, we try. One thing our Covid experience has taught me: even though I think I don't like people, I guess I need them. Go figure!

Woody Allen finds faith in a world where the Marx Brothers
exist in "Hannah and Her Sisters."