Thursday, November 27, 2008

More food & drink in film.

Charlie Chaplin making his dinner rolls dance in The Gold Rush. Paul Newman making coffee in the opening of Harper. James Dean making tea for Elizabeth Taylor in Giant (then later telling her she looks "pert nar good enough to eat" just before her husband's fist meets his black-oil-covered face). James Dean pressing that cold bottle of milk to his forehead in Rebel Without a Cause. Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson serving her wheelchair-bound sister a special treat in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Brando's description of how he'd eat a rat if he had one in Last Tango in Paris, and, of course, the butter scene from the same movie. Also, Brando with the orange at the end of The Godfather.

Lucille Ball gave us many wonderful food moments in I Love Lucy. Yeah, it's TV but her routines are right up there with the best in cinema. There's the episode where William Holden stares her down as she tries to casually eat her lunch - great spaghetti slapstick; the beloved chocolate factory episode; and my favourite: the way she eats her bread crumbs after starving herself on a diet. She also did a rollicking food scene in The Long Long Trailer, a second rate but entertaining movie she made with Desi Arnaz.

Woody Allen being scared of the lobsters in Annie Hall, Alastair Sim savouring his gruel in Scrooge, Joan Crawford baking pies in Mildred Pierce, Kate Hepburn flipping olives in Bringing Up Baby, Shirley Temple singing Animal Crackers in My Soup (do funny things to me...)

Lastly, a truly brilliant bit of food footage: Too Many Ritz - the soup scene.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I never eat my crusts. I never have and I never will. Live with it.

My favourite eating scene in a movie is in The Marx Brothers' Room Service. All meals should be like this, no talking, just comedic hunger, the funny side of famished. The last scene in Woman of the Year where Kate makes breakfast and serves it to Spencer is also dialogue-less brilliance. Agent Cooper with his pie and coffee in Twin Peaks. Billy Madison with his sloppy joe. Toni Colette eating that popsicle in Little Miss Sunshine. Steve Carell saying "a la mode" in the same flick. Tom Jones. Tom Hanks nibbling the tiny corn in Big. Stanley clearing the table with his greasy fingers in A Streetcar Named Desire. Jack and the chicken salad sandwich scene. And, of course, that climactic dinner scene in The Miracle Worker, a riveting dramatic bookend to the Marx Brothers' comedic noshing.

I'm hungry.

Friday, November 21, 2008

June really gets around but she never gets top billing. Henry and June. Walter and June. Benny and Joon. In that last one she changed the spelling of her name but it does no good. June gets around. She also occasionally gets ditched as in Walter and Henry (directed by Daniel Petrie who also helmed the compelling Sybil).

Movie of the Month Club is a group of people who get together to watch movies with the name of the current month in the title. This month they are watching Sweet November starring Keanu Reeves and Charlize Therron. Also, November starring Courtney Cox. I have not seen either of these movies but I used to hang out with Keanu before he became a superstar. I think one of his best roles was Siddhartha: "If you tighten the string too much it will snap and if you leave it too slack it will not play...dude."

In December members will be treated to December Bride with that woman we all want as our grandmother - Spring Byington. In January it's Captain January with Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebson, then January Man which was directed by Pat O'Connor who also helmed Sweet November. He was also responsible for A Month in the Country. Movie of the Month Club members want to know which month that was exactly that was spent in the country.

There are no movies with February in the title (Mr. O'Connor, anything?) so members watch The Leap Years (from Singapore) and Leap Year, a movie never released in the US because it was made by Fatty Arbuckle after the Virginia Rappe scandal. For March there's March of the Wooden Soldiers, March of the Penguins and members like to include Middlemarch.

In April the club stocks up on popcorn because there's quite the list: April in Paris, The April Fools, April Fool's Day, April Love, Enchanted April, Sometimes in April, Pieces of April, April in Love and April Showers. April in Paris stars Doris Day and April Showers stars Pat Boone. His white shoes, her platinum hair: Day-Boone!

The following month members will gather round the screen for May directed by Lucky McKee. Also included: Mayday. June is the above mentioned flicks about that harlot June (aka Joon) plus June Bride and June Night. July is Preston Sturges' wonderful film Christmas in July and the 1995 effort Feast in July. They sound like they could be the same movie but actually, except for the month, they have little in common.

I'm saving the last three months' movies for another time. September is a good one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cats in Cinema

Today one of my dinner companions used the word "trickle". He said, "Wasn't the big bailout supposed to trickle down to us?" My other dinner companion responded: "Perhaps we have to lie on our backs and open our mouths really wide." We laughed.

I was drinking a chocolate martini and thinking that I should have used the word "trickle" in my musings about toilets in movies (see yesterday's post). Trickle. The sound of liquids trickling. Not only is it a good word but my grandmother, who was very English, used to use it as her euphemism for urinate. "Do you have to trickle?" she'd ask my sister and me when we were just small. Or she'd simply say, "Trickles?" Just the sound of it made me have to go.

My grandmother's name was Olive Valentine Auchterlonie. Back in the dirty 30s she and her seven children lived across the street from a family called the Allys. Both families had pet cats and the Alleys used to call the Auchterlonie's cat the Auchtopus while the Auchterlonies used to call the Ally's feline the Alley Cat. Which brings me to cats in movies.

My favourite cat movie when I was a kid was The Three Lives of Thomasina. It was full of magic and mystery and a cat that came back from the dead. She didn't really, she was actualy still alive when the kids thought she'd passed and held a funeral for her. The witch in this movie isn't really a witch either. The kids just think she is.

But Bell, Book and Candle had real witches and real magic! Long before there was Harry Potter there was Jack Lemmon as a warlock making the streetlamps of Greenwich Village go off and on in the depths of the hushed night, and Kim Novak casting her spell over James Stewart. They'd starred together earlier that same year ('58) in Vertigo (B, B and C would be Stewart's last romantic lead). Add to that Ernie Kovaks as a famous novelist and Hermoine Gingold at her witchy best and Elsa Lancaster as a witch named Queenie (which incidentally was my grandmother's ncikname) and you've got a heady brew, a cauldron full of surprises and wonder.

Now add to that potion the mysterious powers of the cat. Pyewacket, Kim's beautiful Siamese cat, her faithful familiar. Pyewacket was the cat's real name and she is listed on IMDb as an actress. B,B and C was her only film. But she was brilliant! I named one of my cats after her and she became but one in a long line of my faithful familiars. (More on that later).

And who doesn't remember Cat from Breakfast at Tiffany's? Cat was played by Orangey who won his second Patsy Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) for this role. Orangey's first Patsy was for playing a cat named Rhubarb in the 1951 movie of the same name.

Other celluloid cats of note: Tao in The Incredible Journey, Milo from Milo and Otis, Lucifer from Cinderella, Abraham de Lacey Guiseppe Casey Thomas O'Malley, (and all the others) from The Aristocats, Jones from Alien and Aliens.

And my all time favourite top cat of the cinematic world: Baby from Bringing up Baby.


Monday, November 17, 2008

I was sitting on the toilet today at the dojo. The bathroom there is a spacious room with a shower in one corner and an aquarium burbling in another. It's a friendly place with a lot of natural light and a few exposed pipes and I got to thinking about toilets in movies.

Psycho broke new ground by showing a toilet. The Production Code censors had always been against showing toilets let alone flushing ones and they asked Hitch to take it out, that and the word "transvestite", but their power was on the wane in 1960 and Hitch left both offensive items in.

Fourteen years after Psycho, The Conversation took that flushing toilet to a nightmarish extreme. Toilets are the stuff disturbing dreams are made of and I used to have nightmares about them all the time. Not so much since my trip to Honduras this past spring.

I had to use a bathroom one scorchingly hot, beer drinking day and it turned out to be one of those ones from my nightmares. We were on the tiny cay of Bonacca which is built on a coral reef. Its buildings are all ramshackle and jammed together, many on stilts suspended above small canals or the vast ocean itself. I'd just downed a cool beer in a makeshift cafe/bar and I had to pee.

This bathroom was a tiny dark room and I hardly remember the actual toilet but I do remember that I could see the ocean through the floor boards. In one corner of the tiny room there was a pipe that drizzled water into a bucket. This freaked me out, all those dripping drizzling gurgling water sounds and a pipe from nowhere slowly filling a bucket up with water or... what?

It's precisely this fear of the unknown - especailly this damp, metalic, deep, winding unknown - that JK Rowling tapped into when she created the regurgitating toilet in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I think that if the movie had been around when I was a kid it would have helped me get over my loo dread.

But sitting there in that john in Bonacca that day I made major headway with my fear. I stared down the bucket and the pipe as I sat on the toilet till they became just what they were rather than the apparatus of a grotesquely moist Beelzebub. And then I noticed above me the most enchanting little window. Just a little square opening with no glass and a yellow curtain fluttering in the breeze and beyond it an extraordinary blue sky. Suddenly the pail and the pipe were my friends.

But the Hayes office did not view toilets as friends! And they could no more be shown in movies than a double bed for a married couple could be.

For twenty-five years Louis B Mayer ruled over MGM and he demanded only family pictures. No dark stuff for Louis and his public, no crime films, no gangster films, no film noir. Of all the films that were made at MGM while Louis was studio head the Andy Hardy series was most dear to his heart and it is those movies that he thought would go down in history. Not Singin' in the Rain, not An American in Paris, not Mrs Miniver. And certainly not John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle.

Louis B Mayer confronted Huston one day: "Tell me, John," the old man began, "does your wife go to the bathroom? Does she pee, does she sit on the toilet and take a crap?" Huston had to answer in the affirmative. "Does she lock the door, John, when she goes to the bathroom? Tell me, does she lock the door? Why does she lock the door, John? Why does she do that? Why doesn't she open the door and say come in everybody, come in look, I'm taking a pee! That's realism, John! So why doesn't she do that? I'll tell you why she doesn't, John. Because it's ugly, it's not pretty, it's not exciting, it's not glamorous to see a woman sitting on a toilet with her dress pulled up and her private parts naked, taking a pee or a crap!"

(Vargas' aside: if you google "toilets in movies" a lot of porn sites come up).

Louis continued: "It's disgusting. But it's realism, John. It happens many times a day with every woman. And she locks the door, she keeps them out. That's what we do in our pictures. When something is ugly we lock the door, we keep it out, because we don't want our customers to look at things that ugly and say 'Ugh!'"

Mayer's days were numbered at MGM. Huston went on to make his realistic films. I don't know whether he ever showed a woman on a toilet (Reflections in a Golden Eye perhaps?) but he certainly tore down Mayer's metaphor and showed us a darker side of life.

I have to go pee now.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

My bed lamp has gone crazy. Purchased at Home Depot, it's a tri-light that turns on at the touch of a hand. As if warming to the attention it shines ever brighter with each additional touch, up to two. But suddenly this little lamp has started lighting up all by itself in the middle of the night when all is still and dark and nothing is touching it at all. Snoozing in the quiet darkness I am awakened by its golden glow. I put it back to bed with a soothing touch: hush lamp now sleep. But it will stubbornly come back on again an hour later. It will do this during the day as well, just turn on or go up a notch when no one is even near. Sometimes in the evening I am lying on my bed thinking and it will come on as if to signify the arrival of an idea before I've actually had one. I now call the lamp God. Or I unplug it, light a candle and call it defective.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barbie had a pink one. And I wanted one just like it (only bigger) so that I could stay in bed all day eating chocolates and chatting with friends. A powder pink princess phone fit for a princess. I never had a Barbie. I had the cheap imitation known as Mitzi. But one Christmas my Mitzi got her rich cousin's phone anyway.

It was the kind of marshmallow pink telly that Doris Day should have used while soaking in her bubble bath in Pillow Talk. But she usually had one of those classic 1950s rotary phones, often as white as Doris herself - that is, its pristine whiteness underlined her purity. But occasionally her phone was a sunny and enviable yellow to match her perfect kitchen decor and disposition.

Pottery Barn has an old fashioned rotary phone (or cradle phone) for sale. They have Doris' virginal white but they also have a black one more suitable for Sam Spade or Jake Gittes: striped shadows, whirling ceiling fan, gum shoes up on a cluttered desk, a hardboiled ear to one of these black beauties.The one at PB isn't really rotary - the dial conceals push buttons - but it comes in a variety of colours: red is dangerous, silver is classy but black is classic.

The black is the one Grace Kelly used in Dial M for Murder. Her conniving husband calls her from a polished wooden phone booth in a posh men's club and she picks up the black classic. Today you would have to call the film Push M for Murder. Doesn't have the same ring, does it? Oh... rings...well, that's a whole other topic within the topic of the Telephone Genre.

I once had a roommate who possessed a modern candlestick phone in faux ivory and gold. I coveted this phone even though it used to pull my hair out when I hung up, all that complicated receiver hardware. Still, this baby made me feel like I was Rosalind Russell talking over Cary Grant's witty repartee in His Girl Friday.

These phones had cords that prompted much physical comedy: witness Roz putting her stylish coat on while talking on the candlestick phone. She gets all tangled up with the cord running up her sleeve, a symbol of her growing entanglements. Growing entanglements describes a wonderful candlestick phone scene from It's A Wonderful Life: Mary is talking to Sam (hee-haw) Wainwright and she wants George in on the conversation.

They are pressed close together with the receiver held between them. George is a bundle of conflict and desire. He is so close to Mary he can smell her hair and it drives him crazy. But he wants to see the world, gall darn it! It's a steamy scene with George's passion turning to near violence.

Other notable movies of the telephone genre: Butterfield 8, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, The Slender Thread.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I forgot to say something yesterday. Because, you'll remember, it wasn't Remembrance Day. It was two whole days away from the Day of Remembering so I forgot. I believe we should declare a Day of Forgetting. That's your day to really let it all go, all that stuff you've been hanging on to: the time your husband called your haircut "moribund" or the day your mother said "You're no son of mine!" It'll take more than a minute of silence but you can do it. I declare today National Forgetting Day.

Now, where was I?

O yes. Silence. Yesterday I was cogitating on movies with mute characters (not to be confused with silent films). I mentioned The Miracle Worker which belongs to what I call the Mute Genre. Other films in this genre include Johnny Belinda, Children of a Lesser God, Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and any of the Marx Brothers movies. Mime Movies do not count: Blowup and the great Les Enfant du Paradis are not of the Mute Genre. They are of the Mime Genre.

Now, what was it that I wanted to say?

O yeah. So after Anne Bancroft starred in the mute movie she starred in its opposite, The Slender Thread, where only her voice is heard for most of the film. Only her voice on the telephone being broadcast over a speaker on the wall of the crisis call clinic where Sidney Poitier works frantically to keep her on the line.

Sydney Pollack cast well (it was his first movie)! AB's voice is like a dark velvet night when all the stars are twinkling and a cool breeze ruffles your hair. Sid also has a great voice.

The Slender Thread belongs in what I call the Telephone Genre as does Pillow Talk which features Doris Day in bed glowing like radioactive cotton candy, receiver to ear on a split screen with that cad in a cowboy hat, Rock Hudson; and Dial M for Murder; also Adaptation because Meryl Streep does dial tone. We should have known La Streep could do the various dialects of phone which collectively are known as Phone-ese (pronounced like phoneys).

I'm off to forget. Happy Forgetfulness Day!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Vargas feels pretty mum today which is better than feeling pretty dumb or pretty numb but not better than feeling just plain pretty. Or it is? It is important to be mute sometimes. Well, mute by choice. But mute as in Helen Keller, that's just tough. Hers was an important and monumental struggle. When I was a little girl I got to order a book through my school and I chose her autobiography. A book in the mail with a pale blue cover, what a thrill, what a read.

Arthur Penn and his crew did a bang up job on The Miracle Worker. Of course, the one person who's opinion we would like to have known could neither watch nor hear the movie. I would also have loved to hear Anne Sullivan's review but she was long gone by the time Anne Bancroft played her on Broadway then on the screen.

Anne Bancroft did some wonderful silver screen roles: Inga, the woman on the line at the crisis call centre in The Slender Thread. Sidney Poitier is just a volunteering student when he gets her call. What a voice! The kicker is she has already swallowed a lethal dose of pills. Sidney has to keep her talking till the call can be traced. It was 1962 and the film is noted for its physical tracing of the call.

And I really liked her portrayal of Miss Haversham (whom they renamed) in the modern day version of Great Expectations. Alfonso Cuaron is a good director but this flick didn't really pan out. Only La Bancroft is left untarnished as the tarnished Miss H. in this overwrought remake.

Her best role (neck in neck with Anne Sullivan) was, of course, Mrs Robinson.

What a mum. Truly does leave me mum.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It is no longer Remembrance Day but I still remember.

Amarcord (I Remember) - a film by Fellini which I watched over and over again when I worked at a second run movie theatre called Cinema Lumiere. It was operated by a coke addict whom we called the Snow Plow. Sometimes the audience would be munching popcorn in their seats but the Snow Plow couldn't pay for the reels for that evening's show. The night we advertised 81/2, for instance, we only had 63/4 in the can with a full house awaiting the masterpiece. The Plow always worked something out with the guys holding the reels though and so I saw many good films many times over. Amarcord among them.

Amarcord is a bildungsroman. Basically that means "coming of age" and is usually meant for novels ("roman" being German for "novel") but has been co-opted by film afficianados. When I saw Amarcord at the Lumiere I had a few years prior been through my own bildungsroman and was now firmly rooted in my kunstleroman (developement of an artist).

So after the show each night I skipped across the road to the tobacconist's shop to buy hot pink cigarettes with shiny gold filters called Chaliapin (after the Russian opera singer). I smoked them at the Embassy Tavern uptown while listening to old war vets with medals and jowls tell their tales over tall glasses of beer.

See, I told you I still remember. I remember everything. And I remember nothing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It's Remembrance Day. I remember pictures of my father and my uncle in uniform (they never went overseas), I remember my grade five teacher stabbing the air as she conducted the whole class in a recitation of In Flanders Fields, I remember stories of those who fell.

And I remember postwar Vienna through Carol Reed's cockeyed lens. And Harry Lime who said:

"You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Orson wrote that line (though the screenplay was scripted by Graeme Greene). After the movie came out Orson said that the Swiss very kindly pointed out to him that they had never made any cuckoo clocks.

Welles, always inventing. The Swiss did actually make cuckoo clocks; they were famous for their Chalet Style concieved at the end of the 19th century. Welles, genius, theif or cuckoo? All of the above? None of the above?

Soon I will move on and forget these nagging questions about Orson. But for now -

I remember Orson.

Monday, November 10, 2008

It's funny that the name of this blog is Vargas Speaks because I have nothing to say. If you've ever seen A Touch of Evil you'll know that is where I take my name from. Vargas was the main character in that movie.

I like Orson Welles. I don't like Charleton Heston but I think Welles did right by casting him as Vargas. Vargas was a bit of a drip. If you haven't seen the movie watch the opening on youtube. Very cool.

A few years ago Walter Murch recut the movie according to Welles' notes. That was a lot of work. But some say worth it. Was Orson Welles a genius or just a thief with an overinflated sense of himself? All of the above? None of the above?

If I could work with Welles I would want to play Deitrich's part in A Touch of Evil. No, Marlene was too perfect. No, if I could name my project with la Orson it would The Ravishing of Lol Stein based on the book by Marguerite Duras.

In fact, I think I'll get to work on that screenplay in memory of the Great God Welles (genie ou voleur?) That is, just as soon as I finish my screenplay-in-endless-progress, Exploding Violet.

Told you I had nothing to say.