Friday, February 29, 2008

"Christie Done It!"

Initially I dismissed 10 Rillington Place as the kind of movie I'd recommend watching only if it came on TCM, not one that warranted going out of one's way to see. But I've been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago and I have to admit: it's crept up on me.

10 Rillington Place is Richard Fleischer's 1971 suspense thriller/biopic, the story of murderer John Reginald Christie, who lured seven women to their deaths over the course of two decades. It ran briefly at Lincoln Center as part of an ad-hoc mini-retrospective of Fleischer's films (along with Mandingo and "Violent Saturday" at Film Forum, which is also awesome and deserves its own post).

Dave Kehr writes, "Fleischer [films] don’t invite the spectator to identify surreptitiously with the power and impunity of the murderer, but neither are they simple expressions of moral outrage. They focus, with sober detachment, on the details of crime and the working of the criminal mind, expressing no more shock than would a documentary on the functioning of the Ford assembly line..."

This deceptive blandness is what makes the figure of John Christie and his domestic murders so terrifying. There's something so mundane about Christie, and in this particular version of the story that is much more effective than an attempt at a sensational retelling might have been. The dull complacency, delusion and self-absorption of those around Christie allow him to commit his crimes virtually unnoticed for years: Vincent Canby's original review in the NYTimes attributes Christie getting away with it (for a while) as "not due to a lunatic brilliance but to incredible luck and to the incredible stupidity of the people around him."

The film doesn't sensationalize the murders, but chooses instead to devote a lot of attention to the details of working out the crime. It also allows us to spend some time with Timothy Evans, the husband of the murdered woman Beryl Evans, a simple, rough, somewhat brutish man who blundered his way into involvement in Christie's crime. It's his helpless refrain, "Christie done it," that I can't get out of my head. Evans stares blankly at the policemen, judge and jury, unable to articulate any defense, saying only over and over again in bewilderment as case-workers imperviously jot down notes on his mental fitness, "Christie done it!"

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl Surprisingly Doesn't Suck

While the novel was apparently an over-researched Harlequin that evoked deepest hatred in my smartest friends, the film adaptation doesn't overreach; content to be an entertaining bodice ripper and studio-slick historical drama, it ends up delivering on all levels.

Stripped of the novel's lousy prose by screenwriter Peter Morgan, The Other Boleyn Girl emerges as a rich genre piece that looks good, entertains, thrills with its vicarious peeks into court life, and is surprisingly well-cast -- considering I originally didn't buy Natalie and Scarlett in those roles, I was surprised at how much I ended up liking them both. I enjoyed watching Natalie act like a total manipulative bitch for the first half of the film (and completely desperate during the second, when she realizes producing a male heir on demand is harder than she thought) and found myself growing increasingly fond of ScarJo's ingenuous sweetness. Ana Torrent was wonderful as Catherine of Aragon, all quiet, righteous anger, and Kristin Scott-Thomas delivers a fine performance as Mrs. Boleyn.

One thing I will admit to: when the dialogue got a bit too "costumey" for me (if you know what I mean by "costumey dialogue") I did resort to adding little voice-overs in my head to amuse myself. Also, in my head, the movie is called, "I Boned The King of England."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Thursday, February 21, 2008

It's Rue McClanahan's Birthday for Five More Minutes!

Come on, you have time for one more drink! I raise my glass to thee, Blanche Deveraux.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

I'm a Pushover for Streptococcus

People say Ball of Fire is one of Hawks' lesser works, but I don't buy that. Lesser-known, maybe, but it's certainly a marvelous comedy: to say it isn't as good as the others only goes to show how brilliant the others are. Interestingly, some people also have a problem with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is another one of my favorites, so frankly, I can only conclude that these people are idiots.

So there.

Now, on to the film. Seven adorably nerdy old professors, and one young, handsome (and still adorably nerdy) grammarian played by Gary Cooper, all live in a big Upper West Side house researching and writing an encyclopedia. When Cooper ventures out into the field to collect new data on the latest slang, he becomes entranced by singer Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). He introduces himself to her and leaves his card, asking her to join him for a round-table discussion the following morning. Sugarpuss blows him off, but later changes her mind -- it turns out she has to hide out from the cops for awhile, because her boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is in trouble with the cops, who want to drag her in as a witness. And where better to hide than in a musty old house full of dusty scholars?

The dear old gentlemen quickly become entranced by her, and she ends up falling for Cooper, naturally. I won't spoil the ending -- it's available on Netflix, so just rent it already.

It's hard to convey the general awesomeness of this movie without quoting nearly every line (though hopefully the premise has conveyed to you some idea of it) so I'll just run down some moments in particular which delighted me.

I love the early scenes with Cooper out collecting slang, leaning in to catch people's conversations on the subway and jotting down what they say in his notebook. I love it when he asks the waiter at the nightclub the name of the song Stanwyck sings, and he replies "Boogie" and Cooper says, "What does 'boogie' mean?" and everyone laughs at him. Oh, and I love the roundtable discussion of the word "corny," complete with diagrams! Hell, I love all the old-timey slang in general, which I guess makes me a bit of a loose-tooth. As such, I find the dialogue to be simply divine throughout, especially Stanwyck's lines (hey modern directors, here's an idea: give the girls a funny line every once in a goddam, while). I particularly enjoy the scene where she's convincing Cooper to let her stay overnight in the house, claiming she's too sick to go out in the night and the rain.

Stanwyck: Look at this throat, what do you see?
Cooper: A slight rosiness?
Stanwyck:It's as red as The Daily Worker, and just as sore!

Then she claims she catches cold easily, and that she's "a pushover for streptococcus." At which precise moment I inwardly declared my everlasting love for this movie. Any movie that can work in a reference to a genus of spherical bacteria holds my heart forever.

Cooper gets his lines in too, though. When he asks Sugarpuss to leave, he says, "Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body."

The repartee between Stanwyck and Cooper is effervescent, and both their performances are great, but Stanwyck, of course, steals this movie. She's the center of attention, and rightly so. Some elements of the plot are loosely based on the Snow White story -- the seven professors, the charming, girl who breezes into their lives and makes them love her -- but with a modern twist, of course (this Snow White doesn't clean house, she cha-chas).

There's also a genuine sweetness to this film that makes me love it all the more -- never are the dear old professors objects of derision (jokes are made at their expense, of course, but they're more like a gentle poke, friendly-like). One particularly sweet scene stands out in which they old sing a nostalgic song for Professor Oddly, as he remembers his dead bride during a bachelor party anecdote. Their friendship and camaraderie are so innocent and touching, they've been known to bring a tear to a grown man's eye. In an interview, Hawks defended this scene, saying, "When you're doing a story about old people, you can afford to be sentimental." Professor Oddly, by the way, was played by Richard Hadyn, who voiced the Caterpillar in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, one of the few Disney movies I actually adore.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Funny Ha Ha or Comical Education of Young Girls

There's a film series screening in London England right now devoted entirely to comediennes of the silent era -- sweet!

Called Clowning Glories and Screwball Women, it features films in which Mary Pickford makes 'em laugh, and couple of gems starring my personal heroine, Mabel Normand! Hurrah! Now make this a traveling road show already and bring it over to New York City!

In other news, check out Scarlett Cinema's Women Aren't Funny, a weeklong series devoted to women in comedy: up-and-coming filmmakers and comics, reviews of all-female comedy shows.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Angel of History

In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson describes how seventy residents of London's Golden Square neighborhood were dispatched by disease in a single twenty-four hour period during the cholera epidemic of London in 1854. So rapid and sudden was their demise that their bodies were wheeled out of the neighborhood by the barrowful. Common wisdom of the era suggested that cholera, like all human disease, was caused by a foul smell. This "miasma theory," would have seemed credible, even likely, to a resident of Victorian London, which was plagued as it were, by innumerable foul odors. But a physician named John Snow had trouble believing it himself -- the evidence just didn't add up. It seemed unlikely to him that smell would transfer disease in such a manner, and he knew a thing or two about inhaling: he was one of the first to practice and perfect the art of administering inhaled anesthetics like chloroform.
(Before this, the administration of anesthetics had been spotty at best, with some patients waking up halfway through surgery, some not at all. Check out the description of Fanny Burney's mastectomy sans anesthetic on page 62, if you revel in the gruesome.)

But despite the fact that he was a celebrated doctor who had administered deadly gases to the Queen, people had a hard time buying this theory that cholera didn't come from the air, but rather, from the water. The city fathers clucked their tongues, stroked their beards and said, "What's to be done with this John Snow?"

So the good doctor had to build an irrefutable case to convince them. To this end, he had an unlikely ally: clergyman and Golden Square resident Henry Whitehead. Henry had read about Dr. Snow's waterbourne theory and thought it nonsense. He set about trying to disprove it by gathering his own evidence, but began to notice that the disease did seem to trace its origins to one locale: 40 Broad Street, precisely the area Snow had theorized was the source of the outbreak. Once he realized Snow was probably right, he became a staunch supporter and foot-soldier in Snow's one-man army.

Together, the two drew the "ghost-map" of the title, marking black lines on top of certain houses, one for each person who had died.

The map showed the thickest, darkest masses of lines all located near 40 Broad Street, radiating out from the pump located there. Whitehead was even able to locate the index case (an epidemiology term for the first person to fall ill in an outbreak): a baby belonging to a woman named Sarah Lewis, who lived at 40 Broad Street, and disposed of her sick infant's dirty diaper in the cesspool there.

Eventually, they managed to convince the board of health to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump, though they had a hard time convincing people of the validity of their new waterbourne theory. (Amazingly, an Italian scientist Filippo Pacini isolated the cholera germ in water at the same time as Snow's discoveries in London, but his work was ignored by the academy for thirty years. ) Miasma theory must be hard to shrug off in a stinky city.

I really loved this book, and not just because I'm fascinated by disease. Although Johnson's descriptions of the events that transformed these cholera-stricken Londoners from "healthy, functioning humans being to a shrunken, blue-skinned cadavers in a matter of days" are fantastic. Johnson doesn't hold back with the gory physical details of the disease. The early symptoms are indistinguishable from "a mild case of food poisoning." An upset stomach. Next comes vomiting, muscle spasms and sharp abdominal pains, and a "crushing thirst." "But the experience was largely dominated by one hideous process: vast quantities of water being evacuated from [the] bowels."

Those small white particles? That's your small intestine.

Once this loss of fluid started, you'd be be dead in a matter of hours. Well, first you'd swell up and turn blue. Then you'd die. But you wouldn't be a state of febrile unreality, no, you'd be lucid up till nearly the end, when you'd pass out just around the moment massive organ failure set in. Writes Johnson, "The actual cause of death with cholera is difficult to pinpoint; the human body's dependence on water is so profound that almost all the major systems begin to fail when so much fluid is evacuated in such a short period of time."

In a city emblematic of modernity's triumphs, inequality allowed an underclass to live intimately with filth, disease and death. And yet it was precisely this condition, the overcrowding of large cities, that would eventually lead to the knowledge and skill base that would allow humans to cure disease. Quoting Jane Jacobs, Johnson writes, "All the apparatus of surgery, hygiene, microbiology, chemistry ... are fundamentally products of big cities and would be inconceivable without big cities."

Which leads me to the other reason I love this book. I love reading the history of modernity, of big cities and their attendant technological and social developments. When does modernity begin? Is it after the French Revolution? The Industrial Revolution? The Arcades Project? Post-colonialism? What marks it? The eradication of fatal diseases? Solid things suddenly melting for some reason? Reading this book made me feel like Steven J. is really into this stuff too, and maybe my masters degree in "interdisciplinary humanities" ain't so stupid and worthless after all.