Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Simple Gifts of “Pather Panchali”

The first time I saw Pather Panchali, it was under unusual circumstances. I was a student in Tokyo, having a wonderful time but missing the chance to see movies that were not standard Hollywood fare. In a basement in Shinjuku I happened upon a tiny movie house that alternated between soft-core porn and the classics of world cinema. That’s where I’d go for my foreign film fix, taking care to choose movies made in the English language. Not that I’m opposed to reading subtitles—but these were in Japanese and therefore not of much help.

 One day, though, I couldn’t resist buying a ticket for the much-acclaimed first feature by the great Indian director, Satyajit Ray. This 1955 film, shot in Bengali using largely amateur actors, would later be near the top of many global “best picture” lists, and would lead to two additional features, making up what’s been called the Apu Trilogy. Pather Panchali (meaning “Song of the Little Road”) boasts gorgeous cinematography and a haunting score by a young sitar player named Ravi Shankar. I couldn’t miss the fact that it was about an impoverished family in rural Bengal, desperately hanging on despite the frequent absences of the man of the house. Though I sat in that basement cinema more than fifty years ago, I have a clear recollection of one of the most dramatic sequences, in which rain pelts the tumbledown shack while a mother – her eyes haunted by worry -- crouches at the bedside of her ailing child.  

 Pather Panchali is a strongly visual film, playing on emotions that are universal. But of course, without the help of language, there was so much nuance that I missed. That’s why I leaped at the chance to see a beautifully restored print in the sumptuous David Geffen Theatre at L.A.’s new Academy Museum. The museum is celebrating, in the first months of its existence, the work it has put into locating and restoring the entire Ray canon. This work is particularly noteworthy since the master prints of the entire Apu Trilogy came close to being destroyed in a warehouse fire.

 There’s no question that Pather Panchali seems long and slow. It is not without humor, but its basic tone is poignant. This is the story of a scholarly father who in another culture might be called a luftmensch: he has his dreams of a better life, but can’t seem to bring them to fruition, which is why he is mostly absent, scrounging in the big city for work. Meanwhile, the mother of the family desperately hangs on. There’s a sprightly daughter with wealthier friends she can’t help envying, and a charming little son, Apu, full of good-hearted mischief. And there’s a whole gallery of other local characters, including the irascible schoolmaster, the always-suspicious neighbor, the ascetic collecting alms, and a wizened old “auntie” who has taken up residence with the family and is not above commandeering what food there is on hand. We see others in this rural environment who can be petty and hard-hearted, but mostly come through when the chips are thoroughly down.

 Ray, with a background in art and advertising, turned to filmmaking after he first saw an Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948) during a trip to London. For those familiar with India’s Bollywood tradition, with its garish colors and non-stop musical numbers, Pather Panchali is a revelation. Shot in rich black & white, it is fully about the poetry of real life. Those quiet shots of waterbugs scooting leisurely across a local pond: daily existence doesn’t get much more beautiful.  


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Seduced by Howard Hughes

It’s natural -- especially when you come from a family of engineers -– to think of Howard Hughes mostly  in terms of aircraft. And of course there’s the latter-day Hughes, a crazy old man whose fortune couldn’t shield him from mental illness and a lonely death. But Hughes’ life (1905-1976) was intertwined with the history of the Hollywood movie industry. As a dashing young millionaire, he became determined to be a force in the world of entertainment. 

 Starting in 1926, Hughes put his considerable money behind films that were nominated for, and sometimes won, Academy Awards. Most notably, he sank about $3 million (and three years of his life) into a pet project, the World War I aerial drama, Hell’s Angels. The film, which was nominated for Best Cinematography, launched the career of Jean Harlow, whom Hughes chose to outfit in slinky gowns of his own devising. But despite a massive publicity campaign, Hell’s Angels could not recoup its then-outlandish expenses. There were human costs too. The spectacular aerial stunt work led to the deaths of three aviators and a mechanic. And Hughes himself, as a participant in some of the stunts, crashed his plane and suffered a fractured skull, the first of many dramatic injuries that doubtless contributed to his strange, twisted view of life.

 In 2018, a new book on Hughes’ movie years made its appearance. Called Seduction:Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’ Hollywood, this heavily researched volume was written by Karina Longworth, the Angeleno behind You Must Remember This, a popular podcast that chronicles the secret history of the old studio system. Longworth does not neglect Hughes the industrialist, but her focus is on Hughes’ interaction with Hollywood, especially its women. There are lots of colorful details about his romances with Katharine Hepburn (who praised him as a lover), Ginger Rogers, Ava Gardner, and other celebrated lovelies. Much time is spent, needless to say, on his relationship with the very young, very well endowed Jane Russell: while guiding the production of The Outlaw, in which she plays a half-breed Mexican beauty sexually assaulted in a hayloft  by Billy the Kid, Hughes famously engineered a brassiere that would dramatically emphasize her two most prominent assets. Russell’s relationship with Hughes was to complicate her later marriage to a prominent football star. While moving in and out of a leadership role at RKO Pictures, Hughes kept Russell under personal contract for decades.

 I learned, in passing, about many remarkable Hollywood women. One was Ida Lupino, admired today as one of the few American females able to break into directing, but also apparently someone who fostered her own career success by secretly cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee during the dark days of the Blacklist. Another was Terry Moore, a blonde and perky devout Mormon  (now 92), who still seems convinced that she and Hughes contracted a secret marriage in 1949. (She has since had 5 other husbands.) Most disturbing, though, is Longworth’s recounting of the way the middle-aged Hughes courted pretty and very young women, scouting them out in their hometowns, enlisting the support of their starstruck mothers, and dangling before them the prospects of a movie career. Once they came to Hollywood, Hughes would ensconce them in hotel suites or bungalows, provide them with cars and drivers, enroll them in acting and dance classes, then occasionally drop by to sample their charms. No surprise: few ever appeared in movies at all. But Hughes did, as portrayed by Jason Robards, in 1980s sad and hilarious Melvin and Howard.



Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Tessa Thompson: “Passing” With Honors

It’s been a while since I used to give Tessa Thompson lifts home from Santa Monica High School. (She and my son were in the same drama class.) That particular teacher, known to one and all as Doc Ford, had helped launch thc careers of several stage and screen performers, who went on to build careers on film, on TV, and in the cast of Hamilton. Honestly, I would never have picked Tessa as the one most likely to succeed. She was lively and cute, just right for an ingenue part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as the ballet-dancing daughter in Kaufman and Hart’s zany comedy classic, You Can’t Take It With You. I heard she was fiercely committed to her craft, but I never anticipated her as a future award winner. Or, for that matter, on the cover of Time magazine, as she was a few years back.

  I haven’t seen everything in Tessa’s filmography, but up until now there’s been a strong accent on romance and comedy. She had a girlfriend role in the Creed films (starting in 2015), and was a sassy college trouble-maker in Dear White People (2014). Her big action parts, as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and as Agent M in Men in Black: International (2019), allowed her to do a lot of butt-kicking, while also exchanging quips with handsome leading men. She has also voiced the female lead in a live re-make of Lady and the Tramp that features (yup!) real dogs. And in 2020 she collected an Emmy nomination as the heroine of a schmaltzy romantic TV film, Sylvie’s Love. The one historic role she’s played, as civil rights activist Diane Nash in Selma, was something of a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

 No one is likely to overlook Tessa in Passing. This 2021 film, based on an incendiary 1929 novel, was written, produced, and directed by Rebecca Hall, the actress-daughter of famed British director Peter Hall. Her mother was the operatic soprano Maria Ewing, whose tangled family tree made Rebecca take great interest in the subject of Black women who dare to pass for white. This is Hall’s first film as a director, but certainly not her last: her artistic self-assurance is evidence of her talent.

 The film, set in 1920s New York, requires two Black actresses with light skin, both of whom could theoretically succeed in “passing.” The briefer, showier part is that of Clare: she has dyed her bobbed hair blonde and assumed a madcap air that has won her a white husband who’s an unrepentant racist. This role is played by Ruth Negga, the Ethiopian/Irish actress who was a well-deserved Oscar nominee for Loving. She is the sparkplug who makes the story happen, but we can only guess at what’s going on inside her. By contrast, Tessa plays Irene, the apparently contented wife of a socially prominent Black doctor. The Harlem brownstone where they’re raising their sons is a showplace, and she’s a pillar of New York’s African-American community. It’s a role that requires of Tessa a new maturity I had not previously seen. She plays not a vibrant, sexy young lady but rather a serious, sensitive woman. Moreover her part is largely reactive, rather than active: the camera is frequently on her as she absorbs and contemplates the life of the dazzling blonde—her childhood friend—who is now in many ways her opposite.  

 Hall has chosen to underscore the racial issues raised in Passing by filming in black & white,  lingering on floating shadows in ambiguous shades of grey. Yes, it’s arty, but it packs a wallop..