Tuesday, October 29, 2013

BURT WONDERSTONE...STORIES WE TELL...SEDUCED AND ABANDONED

Steve Carell: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
VOD pickings have been slim lately. The service is either feast or famine. For several weeks in a row I was treated to some very fine independent films, many of which were reviewed on this space. This weekend the fare was so scarce that I ended up watching The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I'd heard nothing good about it, but with a good cast, a Las Vegas setting, and a plot involving magicians, I didn't see how anything could go wrong.   I ended up staring at the screen in open-mouthed wonder at how a film starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, and Alan Arkin could be so bloody awful.

Maybe it was the ridiculous wigs. Carell and Buscemi are supposed to be a pair of Las Vegas magicians, ala the old tiger tamers from a few years back,  and they're dressed to the glorious hilt. One can imagine the committee that created this movie  sitting around at a board meeting, laughing hysterically at the idea of Carell in a puffy wig, his skin bronzed by a sun lamp. But Carell's slick Las Vegas get-up isn't funny beyond the first time you see it.

Also, I can't understand how the characters played by Carell and Buscemi, who were supposedly friends in childhood, grew up to be several years apart in age. Regardless, we're to believe they become very famous, until their ruthless promoter (Gandolfini) fires them because their ticket sales are lagging. After 10 years of success, the magical duo is being usurped by a crazed new street magician (Carrey). Carell and Buscemi split, and Carell ends up doing his act at a nursing home, where he meets his aging childhood idol (Arkin). His interest in magic renewed, Carell rejoins Buscemi, and comes up with a rather unlikely magic trick to upstage the renegade Carrey and get their job back. (By the way, there are four screenwriter credits for this, which is akin to hiring four people to finish a child's connect the dots puzzle.)

Wonderstone is directed by revered television veteran Don Scardino, who hasn't directed many features. This film has the feel of television, with plot points wrapped up neatly. My own magical powers must have kicked in during the movie because I could predict nearly every line before it was said. The one saving grace is Carrey, but he can't quite steal the show because there's nothing to steal. Carrey plays a character similar to his creepy role in The Cable Guy. I think a better film might have been made if it focused on Carrey's oddball character, a man who thinks modern magic is all about driving nails into his head and holding his urine for 12 days. I would have enjoyed seeing this odd man as an underdog, trying to break into the world of magicians, with Carell and Buscemi as the pompous old guard trying to fend him off.  That would've been a film to see.


Since we live in an era of critically acclaimed documentaries (I believe 35 have been released this week alone) to say that Stories We Tell has been critically acclaimed really doesn't mean much. Still, it's a good one, as far as such self-absorbed non-fiction goes. As one of the characters says early on, "Who cares about our stupid family?" I agree. I certainly didn't. Yet, it's well made, and director Sarah Polley smartly doles out the information in a way that makes it one of those "edge of the seat" docs, the sort where we wonder what might have really happened in this tale of infidelity and family secrets. It may not have much bearing on us personally, but for its 100 minute length it's reasonably absorbing.

The tale concerns Polley's search for her biological father. There'd been a rumor in the family that her dad, the stoic Michael Polley, a former actor in the Canadian theater, wasn't her actual father. Using lots of home movie footage (was everyone in the family born with a camera in their hands?) as well as interviewing various family members, Polley creates a portrait of her late mother,  Diane Polley,a charismatic sort who left the family briefly to take part in a stage production in Montreal. While there, she got involved in a backstage romance, or so it appeared. When the show's run in Montreal was over, she returned to Michael, had another child (Sarah), and all seemed well. Until the rumors started, that is.

The only person in the film that I liked was Michael, the cuckolded husband. He had a genuine fondness for Sarah, and is also quite frank about his shortcomings as a husband. I felt like telling him, "Don't apologize, man. She was unfaithful to you." He's an unfortunate fellow who has had several shitty cards dealt to him, and has taken to a life of near seclusion. The rest of the family seem rather glib and neurotic, traits perhaps inherited from their mom. By the time the film was over, I was quite happy to say farewell to the Polley family, their toothy smiles, and their forced laughter.  

Sarah Polley? Well, she's just another self-possessed creative type, of which I've certainly had my fill of over the years. She's exploited a very sad family story to make her little film, exposed family secrets with the coolness of a serial killer explaining where the bodies are buried, and worse yet, always has a miserable look on her face, as if she knows she's exploiting her family but feels it's necessary in the name of art, or something.  She's a cold one, staring at her monitors with her dead eyes, but also presumptuous enough to have herself filmed while she's filming others. How convenient for her that we live in an era of gross exhibitionism.

If her film has accomplished anything, it got her father's creative side burning again. Michael Polley was once an actor of some renown in Canada, and he not only provides much of the voice over narration of the film, he also wrote his own copy. He has a wonderful voice, capable of great melancholy and humor, and his writing is quite fine. I hope this film leads to more work for him.  It will be a small compensation for having his dirty laundry aired this way, all so his daughter can show her little movie at film festivals.

As for the person who turned out to be Polley's real father? He's the least likely one you'd imagine. He's also angry at having to share his story in a documentary, for he feels his life is being watered down to benefit Polley's  Rashoman type narration. He has a valid point. Still, he sounds a little high handed when he argues that the main goal of art is to illuminate the truth. Hasn't he seen The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?


Coming in just under the radar on HBO is Seduced and Abandoned, an uneven but interesting  documentary by James Toback.  It's about the time he and Alec Baldwin went to the Cannes Film Festival to raise money for their dream project: a re imagining of Last Tango in Paris set in Iraq.   But once in Cannes,  they are hit with some hard reality: the potential backers don't think Baldwin is bankable anymore.

Baldwin maintains impeccable manners and an icy smile as one old rich guy after another dismisses him. "Youre thing was submarines," says one money guy, as if hitting on a profound idea. "Can you do the film in a submarine?" Another simply scoffs, "Baldwin can't do a film like this. He's a TV actor."

Toback should've spent more time focusing on Baldwin, but instead he meanders, interviewing various old pros about the difficulties of the business. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola offer the usual bromides, and Ryan Gosling has some amusing anecdotes about his early days, but these asides distract from the real theme of Seduced and Abandoned, that the film industry is slowly dying.


The film is loaded with a kind of decrepit opulence. Every one seems wealthy but ill: Bernardo Bertolucci is in a wheelchair; Scorsese and Coppola look tired, as does Roman Polanski; the various millionaires are, for the most part, very old men; and even Toback, 69, is walking with the use of a cane.  Toback asks several of the film's aging participants if they fear dying. This could've been a handy metaphor for the death of the movie business, but he doesn't quite hit it. Toback has chutzpah, though. He tells some of the old money men that, although they don't have long to live, they'll be remembered forever if they finance his film, and "put their name on a piece of great art." Well, as far as I know, Toback has been making movies since 1974 and has yet to create a piece of great art.  That,  more  than Hollywood's penny pinching climate, is probably why he couldn't convince anyone to back his project.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

LOU REED 1942-2013




Boston, Oct. 1984There's Lou on stage at the Orpheum Theater, a smoke-filled place with moth eaten seats that for years had been tacking on an extra five bucks for restoration charges that never saw fruition.  He's still youngish. He looks fit. It's a few years after my favorite album of his (Street Hassle) and a few years before    the New York album.  How strange it was that he would finally find something resembling mainstream success in that most revolting of decades, the 1980s. In the era of crack and AIDS and MTV, he became the poet of the dark, not because he made his best music in that period, but because the culture needed someone to balance out Boy George and Madonna. Lou was handy.  Who else would do it? John Mellencamp?

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For now, it's 1984, and he's at The Orpheum.  I'm with my girlfriend of the time, and we're both wearing leather jackets. In most regards, it's a very fine night. That is, except for the show. The house is just about full, and the yokels are shouting "Looooooouuuuu," the way Springsteen fans might shout "Bruuuuuuuce." But the vibe isn't right. There had been so many Lou Reeds over the years. There was "transvestite Lou," and "druggie Lou,"  and Lou the hard rocker, and Lou the poet. Everybody had their own version of Lou. There was even a period of time where he told jokes onstage, like he was a standup comic. The audience wasn't sure which Lou had shown up tonight. He was just there, playing.

I'd spoken to an older friend who had seen Lou at The Paradise rock club a few years earlier, a night when Lou had given himself fits trying to play a  guitar solo. According to my friend, Lou grew so frustrated that he simply chucked his guitar to the floor and walked off the stage in a snit.
 

"It was incredible," my friend said. "He just threw it down, a brand new Fender guitar. It sat there on the floor of the Paradise, creating all sorts of feedback, like it was sizzling. The fans were booing the shit out of him and he never came back. He played two  songs, and that was it! I was ripped off, man..."
 
I was warned to not spend my money on Lou Reed, because his shows were always a crapshoot. But the Lou Reed I'm watching at the Orpheum doesn't seem energetic enough to get angry and walk off. He seems distracted from the beginning, opening the show with a dreary 'Sweet Jane.'  He played it like an accountant singing 'Happy Birthday' at an office party. He sounded like he wished he'd never written it. It's a strange night. He plays most of my favorite songs, and I'm enjoying them, but it's not the life changing night I had anticipated.

Then the band starts up the encore. I can't quite make it out, but when Lou starts singing I recognize the lyrics. He's singing about madness and shock therapy. He's closing the show with 'Kill Your Sons.' Maybe this would save the show. Maybe...

I don't know what Lou has done in recent years. I know he was very ill. I know that at various times in his life he was a drug user and an alcoholic, and he was aging hard.  I know he married his beloved Laurie Anderson. The most recent thing I saw him do was a performance of his Berlin album, surrounded by young musicians and singers trying to recreate the sound of that great old album, a rock opera that, in my mind, rivaled anything by The Who. Lou and the youngsters  made it sound strong and vital and intelligent. As the music swooped and soared, Lou stood at the center of the storm and seemed like a proud grandpapa. It almost made up for the time I found 'Metal Machine Music' in the two-dollar bargain bin at Strawberry's and raced home with what I thought was a two-record set of Lou's music, only to find it was nothing but horseshit feedback and noise.

Bangs had been right, you know. Lou was full of himself, never lived up to his potential, and for the most part was a colossal disappointment.  You bought his albums hoping for the best and being thankful for the odd gem that turned up. That was all you could do. Did you buy Rock and Roll Heart? Did you buy The Bells? Did you convince yourself they were under appreciated rock masterpieces? Good for you. Did you ever play that game where you tried to imagine an album like Sally Can't Dance with the musicians from Rock and Roll Animal?  Me, too. Did you ever wonder why Lou's albums didn't sound right? Did you grow tired of his talk about "bi-naural sound," and "atonal thrusts," and wonder why, despite all of his talk about production and technology, his albums always sounded messy and garbled? Me, too. Street Hassle worked for me. That's the one. For you it might be The Blue Mask, or the first Velvet Underground album. Maybe you liked him because you saw him on Farm Aid. For me, Street Hassle is the one that worked from top to bottom.

Meanwhile, back in 1984, Lou starts turning his back to the crowd. He's been indifferent to us all night. He was never a guy to pump his fist and say Hello Boston! Which was fine with me. But what is this? Why is he turning his back to us? He's fiddling with the knobs on his amp, and adjusting his guitar volume. The band is vamping along. Suddenly, the Orpheum feels like a giant wind tunnel, and the band is a rocket coming towards us. They haven't played too hard all night; they've been giving us the moody Lou treatment, providing just enough noise to compliment Lou's pose as the thinking man's rocker. Now, as if a switch had been tripped, they are raging monsters of rock. Lou, who has been quiet for a few bars, teases the first note of a guitar solo. It's piercing, and flies right into the balcony where I'm seated and parts my eyebrows. He once recorded a live album called 'Take No Prisoners.' He is about to live up to that album's overblown title...

I was happy to learn one summer afternoon that Lou was scheduled to perform 'Street Hassle' on NBC's Midnight Special. I actually took a nap that day so I could stay awake to watch him. Then, there he was being interviewed by some TV schmuck. He wasn't going to sing it because the network objected to the lyrics. Yes, the lyrics were indeed gross, something about a hooker getting killed, and something about gay sex, and other things that my teen mind didn't quite get. All I knew was that he wasn't going to sing as planned. I thought he could've sang something else, since I'd spent the afternoon napping.Would it have killed him to play something? Instead, he sat for an interview. I remember the interviewer asked him if he would perform a song like 'Street Hassle' for his mother. Lou said sure, I'd play it for my grandmother. In that vein, he should've told the network he was going to perform another ditty, a little something called 'I Want to be Black.' But no, he was stubborn, sitting there smoking a cig and looking blasé. Maybe he thought he could get more publicity this way. He didn't. No one really cared about Lou and his dirty mouth. This was the era of DEVO and Blondie. Godfather of punk? He couldn't buy a headline in those days.

Lou never sold out, and wasn't going to let a network or a record label dictate to him, but he certainly rode his share of bandwagons.  In the 1970s he adopted the glam look so he could be like Bowie and Iggy and Alice, and whoever else was popular. He painted his nails black and minced around. He pulled it off fairly well. I liked those pics of him with the blond hair, and the S&M gear. For a while he acted like a dirty little gutter twink, giving reporters one word answers in the best Andy Warhol tradition. Later in the decade he wore  silk shirts and mirror shades, and frizzed his hair up like the dad on The Brady Bunch. He went Studio 54  on us. In the 1980s he wore a poodle mullet.  He talked a lot about not bowing to the silly demands of the industry,  but I remember him taking his turns on MTV, trying like hell to be where the money was. I remember him doing a motorcycle commercial, too.  Most recently, I heard one of his songs used to promote a very violent video game. I suppose he made a few bucks on that one. Maybe he had medical bills to pay. They were probably piling up on him at the end.

The worst Lou of all was when he'd befriended Bruce Springsteen. There'd been a mutual admiration thing going on, and Lou even brought Bruce in to do some backing vocals on 'Street Hassle.' Shortly after, Lou started appearing in a tight t-shirt and a leather vest. He'd become very Bruce-like in his appearance. Lou was even lifting weights in those days, trying to get big All-American muscles like Bruce. Also, Lou's band started resembling the E-Street Band. He found a gigantic black dude to play bass, and I swear somewhere in the back of Lou's ironic little mind he thought this dude would be his Clarence Clemons.  Thankfully, that phase didn't last long.
 
Lou's fans were patient as he tried on his many guises. In a way, he was like a character in one of his songs, a singer trying to fit in somewhere. We didn't care what he looked like. We didn't care who was overrating him, or underrating him. We just waited for the next album, and then the next, always hoping, hoping. 

The New York album seemed to blow away all of his various images. Having finally achieved a semblance of commercial success, Lou  settled into a sort of late adulthood. He became one of rock's elder statesmen, a more poetic Keith Richards. If Springsteen was Dylan for dumb people, Lou was Springsteen for miscreants and non-conformists. He was Paul Simon with more blood and horror. Lou Reed, at his best, allowed us to look behind the curtain at the freak show. He chronicled the streets, and championed the debased. He was the Hubert Selby of rock.

As Lou grew old and flinty, the tributes rolled in. Everyone who bought the first Velvets album started a band, blah blah blah. He took the praise with a grain of salt. When VH1 played a special tribute to the Transformer album, he merely shrugged. "I don't see what the big deal is," he said. "It's just a bunch of songs."

But the tributes rarely mentioned his guitar playing. Although he often used sidemen so he could focus on singing, he happened to be an interesting and underrated guitarist. I say this because I know. I saw it first hand. I heard it. And when I heard tonight that Lou Reed had died, my mind didn't turn immediately to his best albums or songs. Instead, it went back to 1984 and the Orpheum theater, a place so full of pot smoke that it looked like Lou was playing in the middle of a dirty cloud...

He's jamming with the band. He's doing it slowly, picking his spots, like he doesn't want to barge in on what they're doing until it feels absolutely right.  He plays a solo like he's trying on shirts; he'll try one, then another, checks himself out, doesn't like it, tries it again. Then he finds what he wants, and the mad whistling from his guitar starts ringing even louder, and even from our shitty seats we can see his arm moving, spasming. He doesn't look at the band, or at the audience. He looks only at his guitar, as if there is a mystery there. Whatever he was looking for, he has found it, and he's going to chase it down until it dies.

How to describe it?  He's playing faster than anyone thinks Lou can play, and it's accurate, he's not blurring anything, and anyone who thinks Lou couldn't play more than a few chords can think again, for he is turning this solo into a masterpiece, and 'Kill Your Sons' is suddenly taking on new freight. It's now his greatest song, and I'm hearing some long buried version of it, a song written in flames. Why wasn't it this way on the album? It's fine on the album, but here, at the Orpheum, it's as if demons are being unleashed into the night.

The guitar is screaming like a child in pain. It's the voice Lou has never had, taking the place of his cynical mumble and providing us with the shear anguish of his characters, all of those dead druggies and losers to whom he gave a voice, they are rising from the dead and shrieking. The screaming of the guitar continues until I am convinced that not only are the walls of the Orpheum shaking, but that the entire building is levitating. Yes, we are levitating. Lou's guitar is doing this. The roof of the building is about to split open, and we sweat drenched souls in the stuffy balcony are going to be sucked right out into the stratosphere, and it will be fine because we were sent there on the wings of a Lou Reed guitar solo that has never been captured on tape.

Then it ends. I think it ended partly because Lou simply grew tired. He had turned in something that might have sounded at home on Skynyrd's One More From The Road album, a full eight minutes of melodic guitar playing that any wannabe guitar wizard at your local Guitar Center would give both his eyeballs to play. But a man can only scream for a certain amount of time before he dries  out. And that's how the solo ends, like a man who has screamed himself into exhaustion.  I never heard him play that way again. I've never heard anyone play that way again. When he stops, he mutters a weak thank you and departs. His amplifier is still hissing and crackling, as if it wants to fight a little more. As a member of the road crew approaches the amp to turn it off, I wouldn't be surprised if the thing bites him...

I've met people who couldn't stand Lou Reed. They'd call him a pompous ass. I knew what they meant. Sometimes I'd say that I liked him, or I'd defend some of his albums. Sometimes I'd let the topic fly away like a gnat. Arguments about music, like flies, have short, meaningless lifespans. I knew how Lou looked to certain people. Furthermore, I knew how his detractors looked to him. It was a battle to avoid. Running interference for Lou Reed could get a fellow hurt.

Still, I liked him quite a bit when I was very young. I thought he was everything a sleazy rock poet should be. If I didn't quite carry a torch for him throughout my adult years, that doesn't matter. He was there when I needed him. If he spent his later years as a crabby old man, so be it. He was cool once, and set the bar for everyone else to match. So far, none have come close. As Captain Lou Albano might have said, Lou Reed was often imitated but never duplicated.

I'm sure bands around the country are paying tributes to him tonight. They'll play 'Walk on the Wild Side.' They'll play 'Sweet Jane.' I'm pretty sure they won't play 'Kill Your Sons.'

And in the coming weeks you'll seek out those old clips on YouTube, and you'll see how he was in interviews, a prick sometimes, mischievous at others, and you'll hear him say that the British shouldn't play rock & roll, and that he never liked The Beatles, yet  you'll see him play a damned fine version of 'Jealous Guy' at a tribute to John Lennon, and you'll wonder where he really stands.

And you'll hear those songs about domestic violence and blood on the dishes, and you'll see the Charlie Rose interview where Lou appeared with Laurie, and you'll see that he adores her, and you'll think he finally found someone worthy of his legendary heart.


And you'll wonder what was real about Lou Reed and what was false, and you'll wonder if he would've been nice to you, or if he would've dismissed you with a lash of his tongue, and you'll wonder, because you can't help but wonder, because there is absolutely no bottom to Lou Reed, and you'll never get there, and you'll wish you bought more of his stuff, and you'll wonder why it was difficult to be a fan of his, and then you'll stop thinking, because a person can only think so much before he's wiped out. You'll see the little tributes here and there, and think shit, it wasn't supposed to end this way, and the songs will seem wistful now that he's gone.

One more thing.  I later found that guy who saw Lou lose his temper and walk off the stage.

"Hey," I said. "Remember that solo Lou was trying to play and couldn't? Well, I think he played it last night. And it was great. So fuck you."

GEORGIA (1995)

 
Jennifer Jason Leigh:  Georgia
 
 There may be no sadder figure than the artist with no talent. As a singer, Sadie Flood couldn't even be described as a game amateur.  Her voice scrapes along in what she imagines is a display of heart and soul, her skinny arms flail about, but audiences don't know what to think of her. "I'm real interesting," she says at one point in Georgia, a film about two sisters, one with talent, one without. Not surprisingly, the untalented Sadie is the one we can't look away from, much like Salieri was more interesting than Mozart in Amadeus.  Sadie, played to scalding perfection by Jennifer Jason Leigh, may suspect that she lacks talent, but imagines she can overcome it with shear bravado. Hence, all of her performances in Georgia are overlong, off-key, and borderline embarrassing. Yet, there have been few film characters that I have loved more than Sadie Flood. I would like to take her by the hand, give her a blanket and a bowl of soup, and help her to find a song in her vocal range.
 
 Ulu Grosbard's Georgia is not a perfect film, and at times I think it's not even a good film. Leigh's turn as Sadie  keeps it on the list of films I like to revisit, but Mare Winningham as the title character, a successful country singer, is not particularly compelling. She sings well enough during her concert scenes, but looks more like a tired folk act than a country music star.  Also, the whole "rich sister/poor sister" contrivance feels like something recycled from a 1930s "women's picture." The main element that doesn't work for me is Georgia's whole blase attitude about her success.  "I never cared about being famous," Georgia tells Sadie. "You were the one who wanted it."
 
First of all, that sounds like bullshit. We're made to believe that Georgia is content to live on her small farm and iron her children's clothes, but performers who get to the top of the country music field aren't there by accident. They've worked at it. They are image conscious. And they don't stay at the top without fighting.  It's also an incredibly cruel thing to say to Sadie, who routinely plays to empty rooms. But Georgia seems to hate Sadie's existence. She describes her as "a thousand pounds of dead weight." Georgia has a point. Sadie is a drug addict and a drunk. She's irresponsible. She nearly dies at two different times in the movie, and spends a portion of the film in a rehab clinic trying to kick a heroin habit. She either suffers from the unimaginably low self esteem, or she has bought into the whole tragic rocker pose. If she can't sing like Janis Joplin, at least she can die like her.
 
Sadie dresses like a 1970s punk, sporting too much Siouxsie Sioux eyeshadow,  but she leans towards music from an even earlier era, such as Lou Reed and Van Morrison (including a nearly 10 minute version of  Morrison's 'Take Me Back,' which you'll either find fascinating or unbearable). She even tries some country warbling, perhaps in imitation of her sister. None of it really fits her.  For all of her talk about being authentic, it's more likely that she has adopted various poses that she has read about in magazines. She just grabs at anything and smears it on, whether it's music, makeup, or drugs. She befriends the drummer of her band (John C. Reilly in one of his early roles) and the two become drug buddies. They commiserate, but neither is bright enough or strong enough to offer  more than a shoulder to pass out on. 
 
Out of nowhere, Sadie marries a well-meaning yokel named Axel (Max Perlich). He's a vintage car mechanic, a good bloke, but while he cares about Sadie, he can't keep up with her highs and lows.  He doesn't really fit her, either. He's just another part of her mismatched wardrobe (she can barely remember his name). The scene where Sadie realizes he's leaving her is astounding. He says he's simply going away to visit relatives, but she knows he isn't coming back. There's very little dialogue; Leigh does it all with a few slight facial gestures. She thinks, perhaps, that Axel might return, but she also senses that the one good thing in her life has died before her eyes.
 
What I find most endearing about Sadie is that, for all of her rock and roll affectation, she seems to crave simple things. She marries a regular guy; she enjoys a meaningless flirtation with Georgia's stoic husband (Ted Levine, a few years removed from his role in Silence of the Lambs); she craves the camaraderie of a band, yet can't show up on time for gigs; she seems to enjoy playing with Georgia's kids; and in a scene at the rehab clinic, she awakens from a dream and cries out, "Where's my sweetheart?" I was moved, and not only because I've awakened from those dreams myself and know the sadness of the cold, empty bed; I was moved because the self-destructive rocker wants love, but like her quest for fame, may only find it in her dreams.
 
There is also the issue of Sadie's catch phrase, used more than once in the movie: "I dedicate this song to my sister, the only person I will miss when I leave this earth." It's a loaded line, and I can never tell if it's an earnest expression of love, or a way to lay some guilt on Georgia. Sometimes I think it's just another one of Sadie's poses, a line designed to get a response from an audience. Even during the film's major set piece, when drug-addled Sadie is wandering shoeless around an airport, she seems to be working the crowd. When you can't find love at home, you try for the love of strangers. When you don't have the charm or talent to win these strangers' affection, you do a lot of empty shouting. The pain and sorrow of this film is in watching Sadie try to win over a bunch of people who don't give a damn about her.
 
Grosbard directed only seven films, but his vast theater background attracted many great actors to his work, including Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, and Robert Duvall. Many of Gosbard's films dealt with warring family members, and Georgia certainly fits into his favorite theme. Grosbard was what they call in the business "an actor's director," in that he allowed actors plenty of room to work, gave them plenty of 'actorish moments," sometimes at the expense of the story. For this reason, many of his films feel long and sluggish. Much of Georgia feels like a dullish movie wrapped around a great performance, and like most of Grosbard's work, it never quite comes to a conclusion. Georgia eventually shows some compassion for Sadie, but we get the idea that Georgia wouldn't mind if Sadie just vanished. There is no blowout or climax to speak of; Grosbard simply ends the film with Georgia performing in a huge venue, while Sadie struggles through another dead-end gig. One is famous, one is not. The song remains the same. 
 
Jennifer Jason Leigh was very much an actress of the 1990s. When that decade is recalled by future film buffs, her name should be front and center. Films like Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) Miami Blues (1990) , Rush (1991) Single White Female (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) Dolores Claiborne (1995),and Bastard out of Carolina (1996), established her as an actress who could easily switch from being an indy darling who loved challenging roles, to an actress capable of starring in a commercial hit. Her versatility inspired Anthony Lane of The New Yorker to write in '94 that Leigh reminded him "of the young Robert DeNiro in her strange, shocking ability not only to pick the lock of a character and slip inside,  but to breathe more easily once she is there."
 
She hasn't been acknowledged by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts, a situation that borders on criminal neglect. In an ironic case of life imitating art, Winningham was nominated for her work in Georgia; Leigh wasn't. (In fairness to Winningham, she did a good job with a character that wasn't  colorful or likable, which couldn't have been easy.  Maybe the Academy acknowledged her because she simply managed to stay in the game even as her co-star was going up in flames.)
 
Leigh still works regularly - she's currently in Kill Your Darlings (2013), where she plays Allen Ginsberg's mentally disturbed mother - but I don't know if she'll ever again throw herself into a role the way she submerged herself into Sadie Flood. I wonder if Leigh's preference for tortured characters took a toll of some kind?
 
The screenplay was written by Leigh's mother, Barbara Turner. According to the film's folklore,  the story was loosely based on incidents from their family. Leigh's sister Carrie allegedly ran away from home as a youth and created all sorts of turmoil. Perhaps Leigh is playing a character based on her own sister? Carrie served as an "advisor" on the film, so at least she lived through whatever her problems may have been. I'm not  sure the same can be said for Sadie Flood. The film ends with her playing to yet another empty room, her hair chopped to madhouse length, her body withered to the bone. She seems to be approaching her final trick: disappearing entirely. I hope she'll end up in that land of dreams where her secret sweetheart awaits.
  
 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

THE CONJURING...SAL...

 
Lili Taylor: The Conjuring
  The Conjuring made a ton of money at the box office this past summer. There was a time when a horror movie making such loot was destined to become part of the national conversation. There would be an iconic character, or a moment, that would be ingrained in our minds, whether it was Linda Blair's head spinning around, or a snatch of eerie music we could whistle to amuse our friends.  The Conjuring, a competently made film that offers a couple of genuinely chilling scenes, offers nothing to stick in our memory box. In fact, it adds nothing new to the haunted house genre, and what surprised me most was that it relied on so many old staples: creaking doors, unexplained knocks, sinister dolls, etc. It's a pastiche of other, better films, ranging from The Haunting, to The Exorcist,  to The Amityville Horror,  woven together for a new generation of movie goers.   Warner Bros and director James Wan counted on the ignorance of contemporary audiences, as well as the very American phenomenon of accepting a reasonable forgery in place of the real deal.
 
I suppose I should be happy that the film was such a financial success. It means people are still going to the movies, and still in search of a good scare. Furthermore, the film didn't do anything to embarrass the genre. The acting is excellent: Lili Taylor is perfect as the mother whose family is besieged by evil spirits; Patrick Wilson is very fine as the ghost buster who comes to Taylor's home, and Vera Farmiga is solid as Wilson's psychic wife. The adorable young girls who play Taylor's daughters are believable in the scenes where they're supposed to be frightened. Ron Livingston plays Taylor's husband, and even though he doesn't have much to do besides look bewildered, he's one of those likable chaps that fits into a movie without distracting us.

Wan already had a track record of horror hits such as Saw and Insidious; the former was strong on imagery but light on story, the latter was a watered down retread of Poltergeist.  With The Conjuring, he steps up his game slightly, and achieves some spooky atmosphere. Still, he's a director enslaved to the genre, rather than an artist trying to expand it. The film runs a bit long, and by the climax, when one of the characters endures a full-on exorcism,  and bodies are being hurled this way and that, I was already worn down by two hours of creaking doors and menacing toys.   Of course, the possessed character is going to speak in a croaking devil voice, and she's going to levitate, and Wilson the ghost hunter will yell at her in Latin. It's all carried off in a stylish, professional manner, and audiences probably felt they got their money's worth. Meanwhile, I kept thinking Wan was forcing this ending on us because that's how these things are supposed to end. That is, unless, you buy into the hokum about this movie being based on a true story.
 
The Conjuring is allegedly based on a tale by two real life "paranormal experts" who spent the 1960s and '70s investigating various "haunted" houses. Most, they admit in the film, are easily explained away, sometimes by something as simple as wind blowing through floorboards. But a few cases, they insist, are real. Real enough that the basement of Wilson's home is full of items he believes to be conduits for bad spirits. As the film's final credits role, we see photos of the real people involved in the case. They seem genuine enough. A friend of mine who saw the film was peeved about the whole idea. How, he said, can a film like this be based on a true story when there is no such thing as a ghost? He railed at the paranormal pair, saying that he'd seen the real culprits on various talk shows and they'd always seemed like hucksters, rather than an earnest pair of do-gooders as played by Wilson and Farmiga. I was less concerned about this "true story" issue than the fact that Wan is being hailed as some sort of modern master of horror, when he's still nothing more than an inspired imitator.

In fairness, I'll give him credit for some scenes where the  girls play a game in the house and don't realize that the naughty spirits are getting involved.   Those scenes were scary, and the sound of hand claps echoing through the house was unsettling. Had Wan kept the film going in this vein, rather than aiming for a cheesy fire and brimstone climax, he might have created a masterpiece instead of a blockbuster.
 
 
* * *

The eyes and the voice never quite matched up. He had puppy dog eyes, deep and brown, while his voice belonged to a 40-year-old perv. That voice came in handy when he played an obscene phone caller and sex addict in Who Killed Teddy Bear.  Even when he was a kid in Rebel Without A Cause, Sal Mineo looked younger than his years, but sounded older. I remember the way my parents talked about him. They always referred to him as "Little Sal," and there was always warmth in their voices when they talked about his movies. They'd talk about him like they were remembering an old friend. Sometimes my father would suggest Mineo was a "fruitcake" who got mixed up in some crazy Hollywood stuff that got him killed. My mother, a good Catholic girl, never believed such gossip. A very good biography  by Michael Gregg Michaud  described Mineo as a harmless fellow who simply wanted to work in show business, pursue his art, and occasionally indulge his kinky side. He died young,  stabbed to death at 37 in a parking lot. His murderer was brought to justice years later, but the circumstances were shady. My father still remembers Mineo now and then, insisting that the movies of the 1950s were the best. He still caps off most conversations about Mineo by asking, "He was queer, wasn't he?"

Using Michaud's book as a launching pad, James Franco's film Sal tries to reconstruct the final hours of Mineo's life. With a series of blackout scenes that recall the works of Jarmusch or Godard, Franco shows us Mineo (Val Lauren) lifting weights, going for a massage, dancing with some men at a disco, teasing his housekeeper, smoking a joint, trying to hold off bill collectors, and trying to drum up interest in a local theater production of PS Your Cat is Dead.  He has friends, and seems to be in pretty good spirits, considering he was close to broke and his name no longer meant much in Hollywood. Things appeared to be looking up, as Sal begins with Mineo learning that he's been given the green light to direct a movie, although studio executives worry he might go too far with his depictions of gay scenes.

Lauren does a good job capturing Mineo's oddball character. I like the scene when he casually thumbs a hardcore gay porn mag while talking on the phone to a friend, and he's funny when he describes a recent encounter with a man he picks up on the street (the details are too disgusting to go into here). Lauren's achievement, and it's considerable, is that even as we're aware of Mineo's increasingly creepy lifestyle, he seems like someone we'd like to know, a funny, intelligent guy who was loyal to his friends and cared about his life as a performer. The film's highpoint is a long scene where Mineo is shown rehearsing PS Your Cat is Dead.  Franco has a cameo as the play's director, barking directions offscreen, while Mineo struggles through a rehearsal with a rather cloddish Keir Dulea (Jim Parrack). Mineo is tied to a table for a scene in the play, and can only remain patient as Dulea fumbles for lines. The scene not only captures the monotony of rehearsing, but serves as a handy symbol for Mineo's life at the time: he was stuck, endlessly waiting for something to happen. The rehearsal ends, Mineo stops at a liquor store for a pack of smokes and some cupcakes, and then drives home to meet his grisly end.  

What's it all for? Why recreate the last day of a long-forgotten actor's life? Franco has directed a number of shorts, but his previous feature was The Broken Tower, about poet Hart Crane, who committed suicide at age 32. Franco is drawn to dark subjects, misunderstood artists who die young. Youngsters tend to romanticize such grim topics, but Franco doesn't glamorize Mineo or make him into a martyr.  He also doesn't try to present Mineo as being better or more important than he was, which is an admirable show of restraint for someone who obviously appreciated the Mineo story. Franco inserts some vintage news clips into his film, and peppers the soundtrack with some of Mineo's pop recordings. He even includes a poignant scene from Rebel at the film's end. Those touches don't hurt the film, but seem unnecessary, as if Franco wanted to shoot a New Wave style drama, but at the last minute tried to dress it up as an E! True Hollywood Story. Franco is better off, and much more daring, when he sticks to the mundane minutia of Mineo's life.

Even though much of the film feels static and uneventful, Franco is so committed to this no-frills style that he won me over. The languorous scenes take on a kind of dreamy effect, as if the film itself is trying to stay awake. Franco likes a lot of sweaty close ups, scenes of lonely night driving, and he has a good feel for crummy 1970s LA. He  directs the murder scene in the sort of hectic manner in which it probably played out; there's a good cop movie in Franco's future. I don't know who Sal is for, aside from Mineo buffs, but  Franco has the chops to be a director worth watching.
 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

BLUE JASMINE...


Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay: Blue Jasmine

No other actress  turned in a better performance in 2013 than Cate Blanchett's in  Blue Jasmine.  As a slowly fragmenting  woman who had it all and lost it all, Blanchett gives the sort of performance that not only establishes her as the top actress of her era, but even hearkens back to the classic roles of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Writer/director Woody Allen also proves that the second wind he caught with Match Point (2005) isn't over yet. Allen, putting together a film that is both timeless and topical, appears to have outdone himself.  

Filmed mostly in a San Francisco that seems both sumptuous and arid, as if the entire city was vacuumed prior to Allen's arrival, the story centers on Jasmine, a woman who was married to a Bernard Medoff type investor (played to slimy perfection by Alec Baldwin). For years she was a member of New York's pampered upper crust while her husband Hal called his clients pussies and ripped them off. He ends up in prison where he kills himself. The government leaves Jasmine with nothing. Desperate, she somehow finds her way to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sallie Hawkins). They aren't biological sisters - they were both adopted - which explains why one is tall and glamorous and the other looks scrappy and undernourished. Jasmine, the one with "the good genes," found herself in the money while Ginger scrapes by on menial jobs and loser boyfriends. There's tension between the sisters; Ginger's first husband won a small fortune in the California lottery years earlier, but Hal invested it badly and left Ginger and hubby broke as ever. Still, Ginger is a down to earth sort and puts up with Jasmine's barging in on her. That Jasmine is a burgeoning drunk and pillhead is bad enough; she also hyper critical of Ginger's latest lover, a cretin named Chili (Bobby Cannavale) who wants to set her up with one of his lowbrow buddies.
 
Allen unspools the story in flashbacks, jumping back in time to show Jasmine when she was wealthy, and then in San Francisco, where she struggles to learn how to use a computer, and demeans herself by working as a receptionist for a horny dentist. In the flashbacks, Jasmine is always seen basking by the pool, or soaking in a gigantic tub, or presiding over  an extravagant dinner party. She's as pampered as a housecat. When Hal buys her a piece of jewelry, he may as well be buying her a nice cat collar. It's no wonder she's clueless about the world her sister lives in. Not surprisingly, she hopes to reinvent herself as an interior decorator: the last vestige of the cripplingly spoiled is usually a stab at creativity.

In an earlier time in his career, Allen might have allowed Jasmine to triumph, to actually make it on her own and even find love again. In 2013, Allen stands back and watches her fall, partly because her tumble from grace is so spectacular. He's also suggesting that work keeps one sane. Even Ginger, a simple grocery bagger, seems sharper and more intuitive than Jasmine. Having never worked, Jasmine's brain is muddled. She babbles a lot, and can't focus. She seems utterly defenseless. The one thing she can do is memorialize her past, turning episodes of her life with Hal into almost theatrical monologues. She springs her memories on anyone, including complete strangers and children. The fact that no one is especially interested makes her plight even sadder. There's a running gag in the film where she begins talking and people move away from her. It's humerous, but also tragic. She has no one to share her story with, and can only be consumed by it. It eventually eats her totally.

Too much has been made of Allen's loose borrowing from A Streetcar Named Desire - aside from some plot points that resemble Blanche Dubois' fall from grace, the script is very much another of Allen's examinations of the modern neurotic woman. Besides, Blanche Dubois was always a fraud; Jasmine is relatively innocent and naive in comparions to Blanche, and was, at one time, living the life Blanche pretended to have. The question as to whether Jasmine knew of Hal's crookedness is raised, and provides one of the riddles of the film.

Allen has often assembled large casts, but many of these casts just stand around like window dressing. In Blue Jasmine, everyone roars, everyone has a role that could make a career, and the film is full of dramatic moments of which all actors dream. Heroically, each actor in Blue Jasmine lives up to the challenge Allen puts before them. What sort of gambler's sense did Allen have when he cast Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Ginger's first husband? It paid off beautifully, for Clay delivers big in two exquisite scenes. If Blanchett plays someone who lost everything, Clay plays someone who never had it in the first place, a blue collar worker who simply yearned to be his own boss. He's heartbreaking. Bobby Cannavale as Chili, the brutish but ineffectual boyfriend of Ginger, walks the fine line between violence and buffoonery. In fact, many of the men in this film seem on the verge of violence. Of course, Allen's world is too genteel, and even his Stanley Kowalski surrogate turns out to be wimpy. When Cannavale tracks Ginger down at work to question her about an affair she's having, he ends up weeping.

The men in Blue Jasmine are almost entirely shady. Louis CK plays an average Joe who turns out to be as conniving as everyone else in the story. Peter Sarsgaard is a potential love interest for Jasmine, but when he finds out about her past, he turns out to be a whining whelp concerned only about his image. In a film loaded with ugly moments, the scene where Sarsgaard worries about his future as a congressman is possibly the ugliest.

Then there's Alec Baldwin as Hal, the philandering investment-banker husband. With his perfect hair, oversized upper lip, and phony smile, Baldwin is the embodiment of the soulless and overprivileged. The tiny audience I saw the film with tittered at Baldwin's every word, enjoying his villainy. How much, I wonder, does Baldwin's success in his portrayal of Hal depend on what we know of Baldwin's personal life?  Baldwin is in a precarious stage of his career. He's as talented as anyone in the business, but he carries the weight of a personal life that sees him put his foot in his mouth every six months or so.  Just seeing him as Hal tips us off - this guy is probably no good. Did Allen play on Baldwin's personal life to add even more spice to Hal's shady character? Could be. No one knows better than Allen that one's personal life will shade everyone's perception of you onscreen.

Allen has removed himself from two of his last three pictures, and has subsequently earned two of his biggest hits in years. It took him a while to realize it, but aside from his most loyal followers, it seems audiences don't enjoy his face. Would Midnight in Paris have been as popular with the mainstream if he'd cast himself in it instead of the likable Owen Wilson? No way.  Like a hated neighbor peeping over the hedge, Allen took a role in From Rome with Love, a light comedy he probably felt he could sneak into. It wasn't a big hit, possibly because it was too lightweight, possibly because Allen was in it. He's become a bit like Jasmine, wanting to talk, but only driving people away. Tellingly, he's nowhere to be found in Blue Jasmine. Twenty years ago he would've played the lecherous dentist.

Hawkins as Ginger is a marvel. A cricket of a woman, she speaks in a slightly choked tone, as if she's always stifling a sob. She's a survivor, and even though she tries to take Jasmine's advice about finding someone nice, she ends up back in Chili's arms. Not out of love, but out of survival. Jasmine was the sister with "the good genes," but Ginger is built to last. She won't end up babbling to herself on a park bench.

Still, as inspiring as the ensemble proved to be, the film belongs to Blanchett. If this is a just world, she gets an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Hawkins gets one for Best Supporting.

DS

 

Friday, October 18, 2013

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)

 

     The Seventh Victim is the sort of dreamy, creepy movie that could only have been made during the 1940s at RKO with Val Lewton producing.
     Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks), a Greewich Village salon worker, has disappeared. Her sister Mary (Kim Hunter) fears the worst and begins scouring the neighborhood for information.  She visits Jacqueline's apartment, and is shocked to find a noose hanging ominously from the ceiling.  According to her landlord, Jacqueline was fascinated by suicide. A seedy private eye ( Lou Lubin) also gets involved in the search for Jacqueline, but is stabbed to death.  Later, Marie sees two drunks dragging a third man into a subway car. The third man, Mary notices, is the dead detective,  propped up as if still alive.
     Mary eventually learns that Jacqueline is under the care of a psychiatrist (Tom Conway). She also learns that her sister once belonged to cult of devil worshipers. The cult is after her, for she has discussed them with her doctor. The punishment for discussing the cult with non-members is death. Six other members have been killed for their transgressions. Jacqueline may be the seventh. 
     Lewton told Hollywood columnist Howard Coons that The Seventh Victim was a departure for him, and that his previous films had been "fairy tales." 
     "This one now is different," Lewton said. "It's just a story of people. There's horror in it, but the horror springs not from some fantastic premise, but from human evil, or the abandonment of good."
     Lewton's films, which already included Cat People, and I Walked With  A Zombie, were among the most stylish and haunting films of the 1940s. Manny Faber, reviewing films for The Spectator, openly admired Lewton. Even though he felt Lewton worked from a formula where "the characters were sweet,   etc." he declared Cat People "about the best film I've seen in three years." 
     Elizabeth Russell, who appeared in most of Lewton films, once told me that she was surprised by the success of Cat People. It was by far RKO's biggest hit of 1942.
     "It was just a low budget picture shot in a few days," Russell said. "We didn't think we were making a classic. Most of us would've preferred to be next door, where  Cary Grant was working on a new picture. We were all very surprised when Cat People turned out to be a success. Our little film was a bigger hit than Cary Grant's picture."
     Lewton created a world were where people whispered their fears, and took long, lonely walks in the night that turned into nightmarish runs toward safety. There's an especially chilling scene in The Seventh Victim when one of the cult leaders breaks into Mary's home while she's in the shower.  The satanist makes quiet threats from outside the shower curtain, her image seen only in dark silhouette, the outline of her fashionable hat resembling devil horns. The shower scene, ripe with menace, predates Psycho by nearly 20 years. 
 
 
The film also appeared to influence Rosemary's Baby,  in that the cultists are not depicted as ghouls in hooded robes, but as normal people, old and slightly shabby. Screenwriter  Charles O'Neil          said he researched the story by visiting a cult headquarters in New York. The people, he said, were surprisingly normal.  Some of the older ladies knitted as they chanted to cast a spell on Adolph Hitler.

But even as Lewton hired writers to work on his scripts (from titles suggested by the studio) it was Lewton who finalized everything, always inserting his peculiar touches into the final draft. It was Lewton who suggested the use of John Donne's poetry into the opening credits, and it was likely Lewton, who had once lived in Greenwich Village, who incorporated that particular neighborhood into the story's plot. "Rarely has a film succeeded so well in capturing the nocturnal menace of a large city," wrote Carlos Clarens in An Illustrated History of Horror Films, "the terror underneath the everyday, the suggestion of hidden evil."

Although filmed on a studio lot, the Greenwich Village created for The Seventh Victim feels realistic. It's a bleak nightscape of failed poets,  Italian restaurants, beauty salons and dark alleys, shady private eyes, psychiatrists who harbor secrets, theatrical troops, lesbians, and devil cults. It was into this odd world that Jacqueline disappeared.

Jacqueline is another of Lewton's dark, mysterious women, a distant offshoot of   Irena in Cat People. She openly talks of suicide, not out of depression, but out of a sort of mystical fascination.   Jacqueline,with her straight cut bangs and jet black hair, gives off an aura of not belonging. It's strange that so many people in the movie love her. Along with her husband (Hugh Beaumont) there's a former co-worker who has stronger than normal feelings for her (many of Lewton's films had suggested lesbian overtones). I suspect Jacqueline's psychiatrist has feelings for her, too. 

Jacqueline seems neither friendly nor warm,  and she's certainly not lively. Yet, people are drawn to her. Are they drawn to her death wish? Lewton certainly seemed to be. Many of his films concern unhappy people, women mostly, who don't belong in their surroundings and seek the release that only death can bring. After Jacqueline evades a man sent by the cult to kill her, she ambles back to her room where her noose awaits.

The film was too bleak for war time audiences. Some complained that the plot was difficult to follow. After the war, though,  there was renewed interest in the film, particularly in England. The film's noirish look became a model for a decade's worth of dark suspense films. 

Mark Robson, who had worked his way up from assistant set dresser to editor for Lewton's B-movie unit, made his directorial debut with The Seventh Victim. He would go on to direct several classic films of the era, including Champion, and The Harder They Fall, all the way to the 1970s with Earthquake. He started in an era where people walked in shadows, and ended with a special effects crew trying to shake the planet. He was amazingly surehanded for The Seventh Victim, and there's hardly a misstep anywhere in the film. 

Twenty-year-old Kim Hunter was making her film debut as Mary. Lewton was fond of her. For a scene in the Italian restaurant, Lewton wanted a painting depicting Dante and Beatrice. Since the painting was copyrighted and unavailable, he commissioned an artist from RKO to paint a mural based on an olive oil label. Lewton had the artist base his Beatrice on Hunter. Lewton knew the reference would go unnoticed, but that was the sort of private in-joke that he enjoyed. 

Allusions to Dante Alighieri's Devine Comedy, where Dante is guided by Beatrice through the afterlife, are ubiquitous in The Seventh Victim. When we first meet Jason (Erford Gage), a struggling writer who helps Mary locate Jacqueline, he's at the Italian restaurant, seated under the painting at Dante's feet. Mirroring Dante's unrequited love for Beatrice, Jason seems smitten with Mary and wants to help. Just as Dante claimed Beatrice as his muse, Jason begins writing again after meeting Mary.

Jason's apartment is another of the film's masterful sets. It's a dark place, its angular walls and shelves filled with books, but with a skylight that seems to open up directly to the heavens.  It's the utter opposite of Jacqueline's empty, rented room. Her cold room with its dangling noose fits in with the lines of Donne that open the movie: "I run to Death,  and Death meets me as fast, and all my Pleasures are like Yesterdays."

Yes, this is bleak stuff, but Lewton was bleak. When he was once pressured to describe the message of a particular film, he  grew irritated. "The film's message," he said, "is that death is good."
 
* * *

Finally, a word on Elizabeth Russell. She was one of Lewton's stock performers, originally cast in Cat People because she happened to have exotic eyes. She appears only once, but as Roger Ebert said in his 2006 appreciation of the film, "her spectre haunts the movie." With her mysterious beauty, she became a kind of totem for Lewton. She also appeared in his Curse of The Cat People, and Bedlam 
 
She's cast in The Seventh Victim as Mimi, a sickly woman in the apartment next to Jacqueline's. She's seen only a few times in the film, skulking around the hallways, coughing. Russell had a way of looking mysterious and otherworldly. Near the film's end when she's confronted by Jackie on the stairway,  Mimi confesses that she's dying, and is tired of being afraid of death.  Their conversation convinces Mimi to embrace what is left of her life. The last time we see her is as she bolts down the stairs dressed in a glittery party dress. It's an explosive  image of one who is not going quietly into that last good night.


Russell died in 2002, but I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly at a Baltimore film convention in the 1980s. She attended a screening of Curse of the Cat People (which still seemed magical 40 years after it was made) and then took part in a Q&A with the audience. At first she was self-deprecating, hesitant to accept too many compliments. Gradually, though, she seemed uncomfortable.  She  finally threw the audience a curve by saying she'd never thought much of her films. 


"I would have preferred the roles given to Katherine Hepburn," she said.  When one wag asked why that would be better than a horror movie, she grimaced.


"An actor," she said, "wants to try different things. I might have enjoyed appearing in a few musicals or comedies." 


When asked what she was most proud of, she said, "I raised a son, which is far more important than appearing in some silly movie." When asked to name some of her favorite actors to work with, she exhaled deeply. The Q&A was becoming a chore. "I never gave it much thought," she said. "It has never occurred to me to say, 'Gee, Boris Karloff is one of my favorite guys!'" 


Her aloof attitude puzzled the show's organizer.  He was a well-meaning man who organized these events yearly. "We flew her out here," he said. "We fed her, put her up in a room, and now she acts as if she's not interested in being here."  The movie fans, too, were disappointed. They'd wanted to pay tribute to her, and perhaps hear a few stories of Hollywood's golden era. She threw cold water on their evening.   
 
 
  
I liked her, though. I imagine she was tired of hearing about her mysterious beauty.  Acting, she said, was just a job, and the films at RKO were made like automobiles on an assembly line. Still, her brief scene as Mimi in The Seventh Victim gave the movie's climax  a strange, melancholy jolt. Lewton allegedly named the character "Mimi" after another sickly character in literature, the consumptive Mimi in La Boheme. Perhaps acting was just a job to Russell, but she was magnetic. It's no wonder Lewton put her in so many films.

In the final scene of The Seventh Victim, as she runs out the door,  Mimi seemed to be trading places with Jacqueline. Mimi is rushing outside to grab life, while inside Jacqueline's room there is the startling sound of a chair tipping over, Jacqueline at last living her suicide wish. While Mimi races out of the building, it has always looked to me as if she's Jacqueline's soul, finally free.

Elizabeth Russell would probably say I was paying too much attention to a B-picture, but that's what I do.
 
 
 DS