Friday, April 29, 2016

Back in the USSR: Gary Shteyngart, “Hipsters,” and the Allure of American Movies

Like so many of today’s rising American novelists, Gary Shteyngart was born in another country. He’s a product of a place that no longer exactly exists: Leningrad has, since the collapse of the USSR, reverted to its older and more gracious name, St. Petersburg. When Shteyngart (originally called Igor) came into the world on July 5, 1972, his parents were typical products of the Soviet Union. But they were also Jewish, which meant they knew all about official anti-Semitism. So when little Igor was seven they packed their belongings and made their way to New York City, where a whole new world awaited them.

In a vivid 2014 memoir, Shteyngart details the making of an American. Transforming himself from Igor into Gary wasn’t easy. He was a particularly fearful child, partly because of his roots and his years of displacement. It didn’t help that his father expressed his love for his only son by harping on his weaknesses. Hence his around-the-house nickname, “Snotty,” and the phrase that  becomes the memoir’s title, Little Failure. At times in the face of his painful growing-up, Gary Shteyngart seems all too worthy of this kind of curt dismissal. Yet he has a talent for language, and the kind of cross-cultural curiosity that brings his words to life. That’s why he’s the author of three acclaimed novels, and in 2010 was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” literary lights.

So what does Shteyngart’s own story have to do with movies? When he moved to the U.S., he knew little of American movies and television. But as a pre-teen, on fishing trips with his father, he discovered the joy of small-town cinemas, watching movies like 1985’s Cocoon. Here’s how he describes his new passion: “At this point in my life, Hollywood can sell me anything—from Daryl Hannah as a mermaid to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl and Al Pacino as a rather violent Cuban émigré. Watching movies in the air-conditioned chill I find myself wholly immersed and in love with everything that passes the camera lens. . .  At the movie theater my father and I are essentially two immigrant men—one smaller than the other and yet to be swaddled by a thick carpet of body hair—sitting before the canned spectacle of our new homeland, silent, attentive, enthralled.”

This passage from Shteyngart points to the impact of Hollywood movies on recent arrivals to the U.S. But an unlikely Russian musical, made in 2008, chronicles the impact of Hollywood on those who once lived under the Soviet system, “where sneezing too loud is enough to get you arrested.” In the world of the film Hipsters, it’s 1955, and restless Soviet youth are besotted by boogie-woogie, pompadour hairstyles, and zoot suits in electric shades of green, raspberry, and mustard. Opposing them are the drably-clothed Young Communists, armed with scissors to cut off too-wide neckties. A hip young man can be sent to jail for buying Charlie Parker albums, because “a saxophone is only one step away from a switchblade.”

 Hipsters is full of outrageous color and wild musical numbers. But one of the film’s most poignant moments comes when a character who has dubbed himself “Fred” gets (through his father’s connections) the opportunity to actually study in America. To do so, with the hypothetical goal of joining the Soviet diplomatic corps, he must get married, and have his hair shorn into an ideologically acceptable crewcut. When he returns, he’s sadder but wiser. As he tells his friends, the “cool” American-style clothing prized by the Russian hipsters just doesn’t exist in the USA.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” -- Mayhem and Mirth on a Tight Little Island

My trip to see a delightful touring production of a Broadway musical hit, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, had the side benefit of sending me back to the movie made from the same source material. It’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, the very dark 1949 British comedy from the fabled Ealing Studios. The plot in both play and movie (which are loosely based on a novel from 1907 called Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman) involves a young man born to the daughter of a noble British family. She was cast out by her relatives when she made what they considered an unsuitable marriage; now her son is determined to regain his lost inheritance by murdering all those who stand between him and the dukedom he feels he deserves. The joke in both film and play is that the eight victims (including a scalawag, a tipsy churchman, and a suffragette) are all played by the same actor.

On film it’s the protean Alec Guinness, whom younger generations associate with the mystical Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. Guinness also won an Oscar for his martinet colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as nominations for several widely different roles. In the heyday of Ealing Studios, he revealed his talent for transforming himself by way of accent, posture, and makeup in such wild comic Ealing gems as The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers.

One subtle difference between the Broadway musical and the black-&-white British film (both of which are set back in the Edwardian era, 1901-1910) lies in the tone of each. Given the subject matter, both are necessarily bleak, with heroes who are unapologetic murderers, and furthermore have no qualms about romancing married women. But the stage musical relies more on whimsy: somehow its leading man can more easily be forgiven when he accidentally finds himself on the path to murder. On film, however, the same character is plotting from the start his plan to lop off branches of his family tree. And though his victims are not wholly sterling characters – rather, they’re weak-minded individuals who never would be missed, as Gilbert and Sullivan would have it -- they certainly don’t deserve the grizzly fates that befall them. And in the film there’s lots of collateral damage that our more skittish age might find unnerving.

The amorality of the film version is somewhat surprising when you learn about the head of Ealing Studios, the eminent Michael Balcon. A documentary included with my DVD traces the entire history of the studio. Balcon, who brought together and firmly oversaw a talented stock company of directors, designers, and actors, was himself known to all as a rather prudish man, much given to promoting English virtues on screen. Still, the studio, which under his direction spanned the World War II era through the 1950s, is today revered not for its serious war dramas and tame little fables but rather for the creepy Dead of Night as well as for the tonally complex comedies that Guinness made for such directors as Alexander McKendrick (The Ladykillers) and Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob).

Crichton, who began as a film editor, was about 41 when he shot The Lavender Hill Mob, about a clever heist conducted by some unlikely mild-mannered Brits. Almost four decades later, he worked closely with John Cleese to bring to the screen A Fish Called Wanda (1988), another heist film—and one of the funniest movies ever made.

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Brush Up Your Shakespeare" -- The Bard at the Movies

Tomorrow, April 23, will mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who wrote -- or did not write, according to some curmudgeons -- the greatest plays in the English language. Shakespeare was clearly an efficient man: note his skill at re-purposing plot devices, many of them stolen from the writings of others. That’s why it makes a weird sort of sense that he was also apparently born on April 23. So the day is cause for a double celebration. But, no, I don’t plan to serve cake.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know from movies. But I suspect he would have enjoyed their ability to capture spectacle in a way that the stage of the Globe Theater could not. Some of the greatest movies made from his plays (and there have been many) have reveled in the visual possibilities of the medium. I’m thinking particularly of Laurence Olivier’s stirring production of Henry V, a tale of military heroism which raised the spirits of the British people in the dark days of World War II. (By contrast there was Kenneth Branagh’s equally impressive 1989 film adaptation of the same play, which saw war in a much darker light.)

I see before me not a dagger (English majors will note the Macbeth reference) but a fancy program booklet my mother bought for 25 cents when she attended a screening of MGM’s Romeo and Juliet on November 15, 1936. (She was nice enough to write the date on the cover.) Clearly, the film’s debut was a very big deal. It was, as the booklet makes quite clear, the first Romeo and Juliet ever to be put on film. The prestige production, directed by George Cukor and overseen by MGM’s Irving Thalberg, starred Leslie Howard along with Thalberg’s lovely wife, Norma Shearer, supported by such well-known thespians as John Barrymore (Mercutio), Edna May Oliver (Juliet’s Nurse), and Basil Rathbone (Tybalt). Andy Devine’s there too, in the comic role of the Nurse’s manservant. I first saw this Romeo and Juliet when I was college-age. What immediately struck me is how stiff and prim everyone is . . . and how mature. Leslie Howard, the ardent “young” Romeo, was 43 when the film came out. His Juliet was in her early 30s. It’s a good film, very well-spoken, but it certainly lacks the rough-and-tumble that mark more modern adaptations.

Fortunately, in 1968, along came a Romeo and Juliet for the Baby Boom generation, directed by Italy’s Franco Zeffirelli. His depiction of old Verona is a visual treat, and he had the good sense to cast actors who were age appropriate: his Romeo (Leonard Whiting) was 18 years old, and Juliet (Olivia Hussey) a mere 15. Those of us in the throes of our own youthful romances (myself included) never quite got over the beauty and the ardor we saw on screen in this film.

Almost twenty years later, in 1996, the irrepressible Baz Luhrman had his way with Shakespeare, producing and directing a Generation X Romeo and Juliet that kept the Bard’s language but featured guns, speeding cars, and two lovers embracing in a swimming pool. Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet featured a young and gorgeous Leonardo DiCaprio opposite the exquisite teen-aged Claire Danes. Personally, I loved the idea of seeing Shakespearean visuals updated for young hipsters while keeping the spirit of the work intact.

Then of course there is West Side Story (1961), which turns feuding families into rival street gangs whose hatred of one another stems from their ethnic differences. Whatever the era, Shakespeare seems to have something to say. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Discovering the Bear Necessities in The Jungle Book

With the new live-action-meets-CGI Jungle Book topping the worldwide box office,  it’s time to step back and remember what Disney wrought back in 1967, when the animated and musicalized version of Rudyard Kipling’s jungle tales was released. The 1967 film is known as the last animated feature personally supervised by Walt Disney himself, prior to his death on December 15, 1966. More so than the current version—which contains moments of genuine darkness that seek to entice older viewers—the 1967 Jungle Book is mostly light-hearted, crammed full of comedy and jazzy musical numbers.

One of the 1967 Jungle Book’s innovations was its use of well-known celebrities to provide voices for the animated characters. This tradition today permeates film animation: stars find purely vocal roles an easy paycheck, and enjoy participating in family-friendly projects they can show to their young children. Think of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in the Toy Story films, or of James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons in The Lion King (not to mention Robin  Williams in Aladdin) to realize the importance we place today on appealing and above all familiar voices. The current Jungle Book is no exception: its all-star cast features such Hollywood leading lights as Bill Murray (Baloo the Bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the Panther), Idris Elba (the dangerous tiger Shere Khan), Scarlett Johansson (an insssinuating Kaa the Python), and none other than Christopher Walken as the king of the apes. Even the late Garry Shandling makes an appearance.

Neal Gabler, in his masterful biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, gives an account of how celebrity voices came to be used in the 1967 film. It seems Disney—preoccupied with his idea of building Florida’s EPCOT  Center—had little use for this particular film project. When he was finally persuaded to look in on what his animation staff was up to, he was not pleased. He found the story too sober, and the “man-cub” Mowgli not particularly appealing. As Gabler puts it, “despite his preoccupation with other projects and his lack of interest in this one, [Walt Disney] quickly salvaged the production, as he had done so many times in the past, by suggesting that singer Phil Harris, known for his loose, boozy, throwaway style, voice a bear named Baloo who befriends Mowgli.” Disney loved Phil Harris’s test track, and was soon full of ideas about how this lively character could help transform the project. Here’s Gabler once again: “The bear, who had been intended as a minor figure, became the film’s co-star, converting the picture from a series of disconnected adventures into the story of a boy and his hedonistic mentor—a jungle Hal and Falstaff.”

All of this might be correct, but years ago I heard a slightly different tale from Hal Smith, a versatile comic actor known to some as Otis Campbell, the town drunk, on the Andy Griffith Show. Hal was an experienced voice-actor, who’d worked for Disney on a Winnie the Pooh short. When he came in to audition for Baloo’s role in  The Jungle Book, he decided to speak in the magnolias-and-husbpuppies style of Phil Harris. The Disney folk thought this was brilliant -- and promptly went out and hired Harris. Soon, such celebrity voice talent as Louis Prima were added to the mix, and were given prominent musical numbers so as to show off their musical chops. (Prima played – with panache -- a scat-singing ape, King Louie.) Thus a new approach to animation was born. Unfortunately for Hal Smith, he suffered from the rule of unintended consequences. He never worked for Disney again.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Play Ball! Or “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

All of SoCal’s fair-weather sports fans, including me, have spent the last few days marveling over the farewell appearance of Kobe Bryant at Staples Center. Sixty points, including a game-winner! Basketball will never be the same with Kobe missing from the Lakers’ line-up.

Still, it’s the start of baseball season, so by rights I should be paying attention to the Dodgers.  Especially since another farewell season is coming up, involving someone who means the world to me and my fellow Angelenos. Yes, I’m talking about the gloriously mellow-voiced Vin Scully, who will retire at the end of 2016. The veteran play-by-play man is now 88 years old, and so he’s entitled to some rest. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have saluted him by re-naming the road up to their Chavez Ravine ballpark Vin Scully Avenue. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

If you check IMDB, Vin Scully has his share of acting credits. I don’t think there’s an Oscar in his future: he has mostly played (you guessed it) baseball announcers. But this is a man who, through years of radio broadcasting, has known how to use his voice to add color and drama.  Plua, he’s got a great stock of anecdotes. In his earliest days, he used to broadcast games in the hinterlands, where all he had for input was a tickertape feed. When you only know the bare bones of what has happened (three up, three down . . .), it’s up to you to fill the empty air with excitement. He could, and he did.

There are, of course, lots of movies that deal with professional sports: football, basketball, golf, tennis, boxing. But though I haven’t conducted a survey I’m convinced that no sport has seen more screentime than baseball. It makes sense. Baseball is the essence of an American preoccupation. It’s got a long, proud history, and it’s a sport that honors individual heroes as much as it does teamwork. The game is slow enough and the uniforms are revealing enough that individual personalities shine through. That’s probably why the studios were making baseball movies way back in 1942 (Pride of the Yankees) and The Babe Ruth Story (1948). Jackie Robinson, the first African-American big league player was honored with a film in his own lifetime: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). Since Robinson played himself, the movie was more than a bit stiff and polite. But that was rectified in 2013 when Chadwick Boseman played Jackie (and Harrison Ford was masterful as Branch Rickey) in the underrated 42.  Now documentarian Ken Burns, who chronicled baseball as a sport in 1994, is about to release a four-hour video on Jackie Robinson, made with the cooperation of Robinson’s widow, and concentrating on his post-baseball life as well as his sports legacy.

Of course baseball lends itself to fantasy movies too, like Damn Yankees! This charming musical transfer from Broadway (1958) rings a change on the Faust legend by depicting a true-blue fan who sells his soul to the Devil in order to help his beloved Washington Senators (yep, it’s an oldie) win the pennant. A more serious form of mythology shows up in The Natural (1984), based on Bernard Malamud’s novel eerie novel about fate and fame. And of course there’s Field of Dreams (1989), which has reduced many a grown man to tears, while introducing a phrase we can’t seem to shake: “If you build it, they will come.” (I suspect a lot of bad decisions have been based on that particular piece of folk wisdom.)

More soon. But for now, play ball!