October 16, 2013

Brattle Theatre Watch-A-Thon Day Two - UFOs! Seuss Pianos! WHERE'S THE FALCON?!?


Day Two was also the Oktoberfest/Honkfest street fair in Cambridge, which meant that most of the roads in Harvard Square were closed down for food carts and street vendors while crowds gathered to watch various brass bands play in the open air.  Intellectually I was aware of this fact, yet it never hit me that this meant that parking was going to be nigh impossible.  I'd gotten lucky on Saturday and found street parking, so all I had to do was feed my meter between shows and $8 covered me for the whole day.  By the time I made in on Sunday I only had 15 minutes to park and get to the theater so I was forced to park in a garage for a hefty $25 fee.  Ah well.

Whereas Saturday had been wall to wall cult movies, the theme for Sunday was classic films.  This year the Brattle Theatre turns 60 years old, so most of the classic films selected (aside from one last minute programming change) were initially released in 1953, the same year that the Brattle opened its doors.  Turns out, 1953 was a pretty good year for film.

THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T
"Is it...atomic?"
Now THIS is how you do Dr. Seuss. 

Written by Theodore Geisel himself, 5,000 Fingers depicts the dream of young Bartholomew Collins, an all-American boy who's sick and tired of practicing the piano for his pompous fop of an instructor, Dr. Terwillicker*.  Bart's windowed mother is quite taken with the doctor and his "happy fingers method," while Bart would rather she end up with local plumber Mr. Zabladowski. Could all those names possibly be any more Seussian?

Bart dozes off at the piano and imagines himself the captive of a more maniacal version of Terwillicker, who's intent on opening an academy/prison where all non-piano playing musicians are enslaved in the dungeon while 500 little boys are forced to play Dr. T's music on a giant, curving, two story piano.  Bart's mother has been hypnotized into serving as Terwillicker's second in command and it's up to Bart and Mr. Zabladowski (who has to finish installing the academy's sinks before the county sink inspector shows up) to foil Terwillicker's plans.

What's most striking about 5,000 Fingers is just how much it feels like a Seuss story brought to life.  That's hardly surprising considering that Geisel himself was actively involved.  But this was made 50 years before Jim Carrey's take on the Grinch or Mike Myers' turn as the Cat In The Hat and without the benefit of modern day special effects.  Those films feel like cheap knock-offs by comparison.  Just look at that image above.  The giant pointing finger, the signature font, the staircase to nowhere...it all positively drips with Seuss.  You can see it in every piece of crooked architecture and every garishly colored stitch of wardrobe.  Shelves of food and drink pop out of the walls and retract into the floors.  The design of giant piano is absolutely magnificent, rivaled only by the cartoonish instruments of the dungeon orchestra.  There are a pair of twin rollerskating guards who are joined by a six foot long beard.  There's even a moment early on where Bart's being chased by guards and he climbs up a dizzying red ladder that simply stops midair, so when he reaches the top Bart untucks his shirt and uses it as a sort of parachute to float down to the ground.  Simply marvelous.

It goes without saying that all these things were acheived practically on giant sound stages.  In fact, aside from maybe the very last shot, I don't think anything was actually shot on location.  It reminded me of all those old live action Disney films I grew up on, stuff like Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Mary Poppins.  It's a weird mix of magic, science and good old fashioned spectacle, with both disarming innocence and subversive satire that can't help but charm the pants off of you.  That's what's missing from the modern attempts at live-action Seuss.  Ron Howard and Bo Welch were able to mimic the surface aesthetic of Dr. Seuss's stories but they were never able to recreate the dark edges, the cynical undertones that elevate Geisel's work above mere childhood frivolity.  There is nothing of the man who wrote "The Butter Battle Book" in those recent films.  The finale of 5,000 Fingers, in which Terwillicker dons ridiculous military garb (and sings a song about getting dressed!) before looking out over a room full of captured boys who each have a number on their back, only to be thwarted by a secret "atomic" weapon...well it's not hard to figure out where this is all coming from in 1953.

The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T is sweet and silly and absolutely bonkers.  I look forward to showing it to my own kids some day, just to see how well it plays and how expensive the ensuing therapy will be.

*Dr. Terwillicker is played by Hans Conried, who absolutely sets the tone for the whole picture.  The fact that he nails it is hardly a surprise, as Conried also did a lot of vocal work for the various Seuss cartoons as well as providing the voice of Thorin in the animated version of The Hobbit.

WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
"We prayed for a miracle."
In high school I did a live radio broadcast of Orson Welles' infamous War Of The Worlds radio play, in which he made a lot of people in New Jersey think that the Earth was being attacked by invaders from Mars.  Producing and performing it was a buttload of fun and I'm pretty sure I still have a copy of it on a cassette tape somewhere.  I had totally forgotten that we had kicked the show off with the theme music from Byron Haskin's 1953 film, but the moment those first few notes played over the opening credits of the film, it all came rushing back to me.

Aside from the initial radio play, the only other version of the story I'm particularly familiar with is Steven Spielberg's 2005 film starring Tom Cruise.  I think that movie works well enough, even though there are some pretty creaky plot mechanics throughout.  The truly mind-boggling thing about the film is that the whole thing was done in a mere seven months, which is simply miraculous when you look at the finished product.  I haven't revisited Spielberg's film since I first saw it in theaters, but while watching this version from 1953 it was easy to remember what scenes and moments Spielberg borrowed from, like the basement scene with the alien probe eye.  And as much as I love Tom Cruise, his completely passive role in the alien invasion stands in stark contrast to Gene Barry's Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist who's determined to study the creatures in order to discover their weakness and save the human race.

The first half of the film is actually pretty slow.  The action is largely contained to one gulley in California and it takes forever before the Martians actually start to fuck shit up.  It's mostly a lot of soldiers setting up artillery and radio newsman narrating the scene while interviewing passersby.  But this is the stuff that most closely resembles the Welles radio play (albeit transplanted to the west coast), so I understand and admire what they were going for here.  Still, once the flying ships start laying waste to the army and spreading across the globe, that's when things really kick into gear.  I love the classic flying wing design of the Martian airships and their death rays, while the giant TV camera-esque eye of the creatures themselves sets up a particularly clever role reversal - the Martains see humans as little green men.  That being said, I could have done with less of Ann Robinson as the woman who responds to every crisis by flailing about and screaming incoherently.

What really threw me for a loop was the ending, which is SUPER religious.  After the mob has pulled Dr. Forrester from his truck and trashed all of his scientific equipment, he gives up on his attempt to survive and fight for humanity, instead wandering from church to church in search of Sylvia (whose uncle was a priest before the Martians fried his ass) so they can pray and await the end.  Just like the previous incarnations, the aliens are eventually brought down by human bacteria, but all the credit here goes to God.  "We prayed for a miracle," Clayton solemnly intones before the narrator steps in to tell us about the microscopic organisms "which God, in his wisdom, had put upon this Earth."  This feels more like a relic of 1950's mores than anything else, but I'm sure it wouldn't have sit very well with H.G. Wells, who renounced Christianity in favor of strict Darwinism.

THE WILD ONE
"Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?""Whadda you got?"
Man, Marlon Brando is the coolest.

I'd never seen The Wild One before, but that image of Brando in the leather jacket, hat cocked to the side and sitting astride a motorcycle is certainly one of the most familiar of his long career.  My introduction to Brando came in his later years in the form of Vito Corleone and Jor-El of Krypton, so whenever I watch young Brando my mind is kind of blown that it's the same guy.  It's easy to see why Hollywood fell in love with the guy so quickly.

He's totally great as the head of the Black Rebel Motorcylce Club, who blow into a small town in search of beers and a good time with little regard for the safety of the "square" townsfolk or the property damage that's bound to ensue.  Johnny is a terribly romantic character, a tough guy who says few words and isn't afraid to mix it up with the head of his former gang (played by Lee Marvin, who cuts a fabulous drunk) but also has a sensitive side when it comes to Kathie, the local beauty who envies Johnny's wandering ways and secretly wants nothing more than to hop on the back of his bike and blow out of town.  In a way it feels like Hollywood's leading men have been chasing Brando's portrayal of Johnny for the last sixty years, whether they realize it or not.  He's the kind of character that's badass enough to be respected by guys, but dreamy enough to make women swoon.

There's plenty more to like here, including the rambunctious, fun-loving biker gangs who feel dangerous and potentially destructive without ever turning downright evil.  It's a great contrast with the town's joyless locals, who slowly devolve from decent, law-abiding citizens to an unruly and violent mob.  It's not even as if they're responding to a genuine threat so much as the mere presence of an unsavory element that they don't care to understand.  This is exactly the kind of homogenized thinking that inspired the kind of rebels that would become personified by Brando and James Dean.  In light of the current xenophobic insanity of conservative America, it's no wonder that Johnny feels like such a timeless character.

DINNER BREAK!

The next film was the Marilyn Monroe classic Gentleman Prefer Blondes.  I would've enjoyed checking this one out, but sadly it was scheduled opposite the Patriots/Saints football game.  Normally I wouldn't mind missing a week of football in favor of a singular event like the Watch-A-Thon, but the fact that Jamie grew up in New Orleans and is a die hard Saints fan lent this game a bit more gravitas.  Besides, we're both Red Sox fans, New Orleans doesn't have a hockey team and Jamie doesn't really care about basketball, so football is the one time that we get to enjoy any kind of in-house sports rivalry.  (This occasionally happens with college football as well, although her USC Trojans and my BC Eagles don't play each other very often.)

I met Jamie around the corner at John Harvard's Brewery where we caught the first half before meeting up with Bart and a few other folks (including one extremely drunk girl who had completely lost control of the volume of her own voice) and catching the last quarter of the game at Uno's.  By now I don't have to tell you how it ended, but if you haven't heard local radio announcer Scott Zolak's call of the last play, allow me to blow your mind:



That was an all-time pantheon Boston sports moment.  Unbeknownst to us, it would be topped about four hours later.

THE MALTESE FALCON
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble."
This was the slot where there was another last minute programming change.  The folks at the Brattle have a serious soft spot for Humphrey Bogart, so they're actually in the midst of a prolonged series of Bogey movies throughout the month of October.  They were supposed to play We're No Angels, but sadly the distributor sent them the 1989 Sean Penn/Robert De Niro version by accident.  Hardly fitting in with the theme of film classics, they opted to instead substitute in The Maltese Falcon.  I had just seen the film (at the Brattle no less) the previous weekend, so I took the opportunity to sit in the back of the theater away from the audience and write up my coverage for the previous day's films.  But since I haven't had a chance to write up Falcon before now, I can include my thoughts here.

When most people talk about detective noirs, they're thinking of Maltese Falcon whether they've actually seen the movie or not.  Private dicks, femme fatales, gangsters, pinstripe suits, fedoras, murders, double-crosses and the most famous McGuffin in the history of McGuffins.

What's not to love?

When most people think of Bogey, they think of Casablanca.  I can hardly blame them, as it's unquestionably a masterful film that's beautifully shot and tragically romantic.  But when you get right down to it, Rick Blaine is one morose motherfucker.

I'll take Sam Spade any day.

Here's a guy who keeps everyone at arm's length, skeptical of everything and constantly trying to work the angles.  He trusts no one except maybe his awesome Moneypenny-esque secretary and he has an instinctive ability to manipulate both cops and criminals alike, always making them think he knows more that he does while actually knowing more than he lets on.  And as Peter Lorre can attest, nobody gets the drop on Sam Spade, aside from the occasional Mickey Finn that is.  

Like any good detective yarn (of which writer Dashiell Hammett is the master) the plot twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes, although in this case it does lead to a somewhat clunky info dump by The Fat Man" about halfway through the film.  But that's small potatoes.  The only thing that truly didn't work for me was Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy.  There's very little subtlety in Astor's performance and the character is so clearly full of shit throughout the film that I just couldn't see why Spade would fall for her, which undermines his ultimate internal conflict over whether or not to turn O'Shaughnessy in for his partner's murder.  I had absolutely no sympathy for her and I was happy to see the woman fry. 

"Doctor's orders are that I must have a lot of money, otherwise I become dull, listless and have trouble with my complexion."
The first movie ever shown at the Brattle Theatre.  A fairly broad comedy starring a more seasoned Bogey and Lorre about a group of criminals in Italy who are trying to get to Africa so they can pull of a land swindle concerning a uranium mine.  I don't have a whole lot to say about this one.  I know it's a favorite of the Brattle staff so I was pretty excited to check it out, but something about the film just never really connected with me.  Everyone seems to be operating a bit on auto-pilot here and the script by Truman Capote never really finds its groove.  The characters all feel paper-thin, the romance with Jennifer Jones is seriously underdeveloped and it's never entirely clear what the group's scam actually is or how it's supposed to work, merely that the four criminals need Bogey to connect them with the guy who's selling the land (I think?).  I like the idea of a Waiting For Godot-type story about criminals waiting to pull of a job without ever actually getting around to the actual crime, but the job and everyone's role in it is so ill-defined that I simply couldn't invest in the proceedings.  To make matters worse, there's a lot of business with Jones' character constantly lying to everyone about her and her snobbish British husband's backstory, and after a while it just becomes tiresome and confusing.  It's almost like there are two separate movies happening simultaneously and Bogey keeps wandering back and forth between the two.  There's a bit near the end where they all get shipwrecked on some unnamed Arabic country that still has me scratching my head.

Apparently Beat The Devil was intended as a parody of Huston's earlier films, specifically The Maltese Falcon.  I don't really see it, and that's after having watched the two films back to back.  According to Wikipedia, the script was written day-to-day during filming and Bogey was quoted after the film's release as saying "Only phonies like it."  I wouldn't quite go that far; the film is certainly entertaining, but it's mostly kind of an entertaining mess.


EPILOGUE!

The Watch-A-Thon wrapped up just after 11:00 and I wandered back across Harvard Square towards the parking garage.  A few food vendors were still taking down their carts and the detritus of Oktoberfest, mostly flyers and various paper plates and plastic utensils, littered the streets of Cambridge while a few stray college kids stumbled drunkenly from bar to bar, taking full advantage of the long weekend.  Sadly I had to go to work the next morning, so there would be no late night revelry for me.  On the bright side, I pulled out of the garage to find that I had somehow managed to outlast the inflated day rate, paying only $15 instead of $25.

I checked the score of the Red Sox playoff game to discover that we were losing 5-1 in the 8th inning.  I couldn't bring myself to listen to two more innings of strikeouts, so I switched the radio off and plugged in my iPod instead.  About a minute later I got a text from Warren lamenting the team's poor performance, but before I could type a reply I got another text from Jamie: Big Papi had just hit a game-tying grand slam.  Shortly after I arrived home, Jarrod Saltalamacchia knocked in an RBI single to win the game in the bottom of the ninth to tie up the series at one game apiece.

All in all, it was a pretty good weekend.