Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Beauty of "Age"

I recently watched one of Martin Scorsese's under-appreciated gems (the 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence) and was struck by how immensely, almost incomprehensibly, beautiful it is. Elegant cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, exquisite (and Oscar-winning) costumes by Gabriella Pescucci and impeccable art direction by Dante Firetti and Robert J. Franco all coalesce to make one of the most visually stunning films I've seen in a long time. Nearly every shot in the film is like a painting that I would love to have hanging on my wall.

Here's just a small taste.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I Come to Praise Caesar, Not to Bury Him.

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 80th anniversary of the release of Little Caesar.

Before he was the sharp-minded, fast-talkin' insurance investigator in Double Indemnity or the poker-playin' master who squared off with Steve McQueen's Cincinnati Kid, before he was the traitorous Dathan in the biblical epic The Ten Commandments or the world-weary friend of Chuck Heston who knew the truth about Soylent Green, Edward G. Robinson was the short-statured yet larger-than-life eponymous crime boss in the 1931 Warner Bros. classic Little Caesar, which debuted 80 years ago today. Released the same year as the studio's other gangster pic The Public Enemy, Caesar did for Robinson exactly what Enemy did for its lead actor James Cagney: it made him a star.

Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, the author would later write the novels The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra. He co-wrote the screenplay for High Sierra (which, coincidentally, was released 10 years to the day that Caesar premiered) with John Huston and also worked on continuity and contributed dialogue to Howard Hawks' Scarface. Little Caesar tells the story of the meteoric rise and ignoble fall of fictional Chicago crime boss "Rico" Bandello (though he's presumably inspired by either Al Capone or Sam Cardinella depending on who you're talking to). While it wasn't the first gangster film ever made (nor even the first "talking" gangster film), Caesar is often credited, along with Enemy, as being the "godfather" of all gangster flicks that followed. It certainly spawned a whole string of mobster parts for Robinson, who would play similar roles in Key Largo, Little Giant and Disney's Never a Dull Moment (my first exposure to the inimitable Edward).

Like all typecast actors, Robinson struggled to break free from his "tough guy" screen persona for many years to come and despite his undeniable talent and charisma, it's easy to see why audiences so associated him with that type of character. Edward G. Robinson is to mobsters what John Wayne is to cowboys. To see him play "Rico" in particular is to witness that rare occasion of an actor and a part fusing together with such perfection that it's almost impossible to separate them. Robinson is so graceful, so natural, so believable as the arrogant, power-hungry and bloodthirsty Rico that it's easy to believe that this was the role he was, as the cliche goes, "born to play." Every scene with him is a delight and there are so many memorable moments involving him that it's hard to highlight only one. Nonetheless, my personal favorite is the scene where he tries on a tuxedo for the first time and stands before a mirror. At first he starts off hating the "monkey suit" he's wearing ("All I need is a napkin over my arm," he sneers.), but gradually he starts to like the way it looks and strikes a dashing pose as he admires his newer, "classier" self. Without a doubt, Robinson is the best part of Little Caesar.

The rest of the film, unfortunately, doesn't hold up quite as well. Though by no means bad, one wonders if The Godfather or Goodfellas will look as dated, quaint and melodramatic on their 80th anniversary as Little Caesar looks now. No doubt the violence, ridiculously tame by today's standards, was shocking for its time (a time before the Hays Code swooped in to protect audiences from being sullied by such despicable sounds and images) and the idea of glamorizing the Mafia lifestyle — an element that is not only accepted by today's audiences but actually expected by them — also made the film rather controversial (though it didn't hurt its box office intake). In fact, when the film was re-released in 1954 on a double bill with The Public Enemy, a foreword was added in an attempt to give it some "relevance." Jonathan Munby (author of Public Enemies, Public Heroes) calls the foreword a "disclaimer couched in the rhetoric of the officiating culture."

My advice is to forget about its tacked-on socially redeeming "message" or its historical import as an early example of "crime drama" cinema. The real reason to see Little Caesar is the iconic performance of Edward G. Robinson. The ambition, the brutality and the occasional vulnerability he brings to the character of "Little Caesar" will ensure that that little man (and by connection the film he inhabits) will live on long after the Pizza franchise has become only a memory. So, to answer Robinson's final query: "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" Not hardly, Ed. Not hardly.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'm Blogging Again

It's been over two years since I "unofficially" retired my film blog Windmills of My Mind. It was the first independent blog I had ever possessed and I very much enjoyed using it to be an active participant in the film-blogging community. During that period of time I had the privilege of corresponding with a lot of great people, becoming more and more educated in a subject about which I had foolishly already considered myself an expert and even having the chance to make some of my own thoughts and ideas heard by others. Thus, my decision to abandon it indefinitely was a painful one, but for reasons that I will not go into here, maintaining it was also quite painful. There was no big announcement. No farewell. No final posting. I just quietly and unceremoniously let it fade away. And yet, while doing so I wondered if I would ever have the opportunity and/or courage to return to the blogosphere someday and if so, whether it would even still want me. Though I was prepared for these things to not be the case, deep down I hoped they would.

In the relatively short time that has elapsed since then, a lot has changed in my life. My 15-year-long career in the video business came to an abrupt end when my father's store--where I had worked as an assistant manager for six years--closed, I got married to a wonderful woman and moved from Oregon (where my entire immediate family lives) to a suburb of Dallas, Texas called Mesquite. A few of my friends and distant family members have passed on and my sister and brother-in-law welcomed a new baby girl into the world (which made me, for the first time in my life, somebody's uncle). In addition to these significant events, the ordinary, gradual changes that the march of time brings about on all of us affected me as well: namely, I grew older, fatter and more bald. I don't know if these occurrences have helped me to mature at all or made me a wiser, humbler human being, because it's hard for one to be objective about his own personal growth (or lack thereof), but I must say that I do at least "feel" somewhat different. Things that were incredibly meaningful to me before don't seem so now while other things that were more or less irrelevant to me have now become much higher priorities.

A lot has also changed in the world at large. The bottom dropped out of the American economy, our country got a new president (it's first African-American one), 3-D once again became the latest craze in theatre-going experiences and Twitter took off as the newest mode of communication. Naturally I had opinions about all of these events, but I largely kept them to myself, partially because I was engaged in other activities (such as searching for a new job) and partially because I had no real forum with which to express them... which, truly, I was fine with. Making sure I was heard may have been overwhelmingly meaningful in my earlier blogging days, but I had now come to regard it as a luxury. Everyone may have something to say, but not necessarily everyone should say it. The internet is teeming with blogs on any and every subject known to man and cinema is no exception. Just about anything I or anyone else could possibly want to say about movies is probably already being said, and more articulately, by the likes of Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Dennis Cozzalio, Kim Morgan, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Jeffrey Overstreet, et al. These are the "big fishes in the little pond" of online film criticism. Still, I found that the further I got away from my old blog, the more I missed it. I missed the challenging interactions with smart people from all walks of life. I missed the sense of community felt with others who loved film as much as I did. I missed it all. My wish to return to blogging may have always been there in some small capacity, but it became harder and harder to ignore the more time passed.

Then, like a child who doesn't want to just jump impetuously into the cold water, I cautiously dipped my toe back in the virtual swimming pool.* Hoping to establish some kind of an online presence once more, I posted some writings on Facebook and with the occasional contribution for my friend Ed Copeland's blog, I slowly inched my way back into the blogging community. Despite my earlier acceptance of the possibility of never blogging again, I really didn't want my online identity to be defined by one of the stupidest things I had ever done. So, as we kick off a new year (a time when we tend to look back with reflection and contemplation but also look ahead with both eagerness and apprehension), I am likewise kicking off my new film blog CINEMEMORIES--the most original title I think of--with this inaugural post. I have no idea what the future holds in store for me here, but I am at last ready and willing to find out what it may be and I invite others who are so inclined to join me.

In preparation for this "maiden voyage," I looked back at the first piece I ever posted on my previous blog. It's always an interesting and surreal experience reading one's own words from years earlier, because they can feel like they were written by a completely different person. One finds himself thinking "Oh, how naive/foolish you were." Nonetheless, I saw that I had written something about "not taking lightly the responsibility that comes with possessing a means of self-expression that has the potential to reach the masses."

Even if I fail to live up to them, those are still words I believe in.

*Incidentally, I have no idea where I am getting all these water metaphors from, but they go well with image I've chosen to use as my header for the time being.