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Cuckoo For Cukor

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On December 13th of last year, the Gay Guru of Cinema scurried over to Lincoln Center for the kick-off of The Discreet Charm of George Cukor, its film society’s 26-day retrospective of the director’s films, the first complete New York screening of his cinematic canon in over 30 years.

While slotting 45 out of the 50 films being shown onto his calendar (see below) won’t provide the Guru the chance for an intense dissection of any one film, it certainly doesn’t prevent him from sharing his thoughts in miniature for each of the films.  So, please, stay tuned over the coming weeks for a running commentary (in no particular order) of every cinephile’s dream!

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Day #1

The Women (1939)  l_32143_ec392ca9

Despite its well-known status as a pillar of must-see movie-going for gay men of a certain generation, and despite its all-woman cast, the film — in the end — seems more Booth Luce than Cukor.  Yes, the film glides along effortlessly, a trait that one always expects when the lights go down at a Cukor film, but this time around the director seems content to simply get out of the way of his actresses rather than using the camera to enhance the narrative in any meaningful way.  When that performer is Rosalind Russell, dazzling us with a comedic tour de force, or Joan Crawford, removed from the shackles of those oh-so-heavy dramas and clearly having fun here, that’s not a problem.  On the other hand, when center stage is ceded to Norma Shearer, an actress who always seemed to take herself much too seriously, one just sits in one’s seat patiently marking time, hoping that that whirling dervish named Russell won’t keep you waiting too long for her return.  GRADE = B

The Chapman Report (1962)

A little-known Cukor, the Gay Guru himself only became aware of the film a little over a year ago via the invaluable Warner Archives Collection.  Based on an early Irving Wallace novel, The Chapman Report revolves around four suburban California women — Claire Bloom, Jane Fonda, Glynis Johns, and Shelley Winters — who agree to participate in a Kinsey-like survey on their sex lives.

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There are many extraordinary things about The Chapman Report — Cukor’s use of color, his mise-en-scène, or the performances of his four leading ladies, in particular the astonishing Ms. Bloom — that the Guru could wax poetic over in a longer post.  Yet, given its undeserved obscurity in the Cukor canon, he sadly has to wonder whether he’ll even have the chance to see it again on the big screen during his lifetime.  And, even then, would it be the same ghastly, washed-out print that the Film Society unspooled on opening night?  As the Gay Guru later emailed the powers-that-be at Lincoln Center, it does a great disservice to Cukor to screen such a compromised print.  And, for anyone who cares about film as art, it gives them pause.  While for every warhorse of the repertory circuit that the studios will be keen to protect – see My Fair Lady — how many equally valuable works like The Chapman Report, mistakenly branded as “minor,” will be ignored, its elements locked away in a vault somewhere, slowly being allowed to disintegrate?  It is a matter of grave concern.  GRADE = B+

Day #2

Camille (1936)

Why it took the Gay Guru so long to turn to finally catch up with Camille, a masterpiece by any legitimate critical yardstick, is anyone’s guess.  It’s not like its story of a woman who sacrifices everything for love doesn’t have its celluloid footprint planted squarely in melodrama, that glorious genre that so often stirs the Guru’s heart.

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Yet, having now rectified that cinematic sin, the Guru can happily report to his beloved readers that Cukor’s Camille is one of those magical but too infrequent Hollywood moments where everyone involved in its production was clearly firing on all cylinders. Yet, it is Garbo — and Cukor’s inspired direction of her — that most remain in the memory long after the final frame of the film flickers to dark.

With all due respect to Marlene, Garbo was, in the Gay Guru’s humble opinion, the most natural of the Hollywood stars to emerge from its classical age, an actor who never seemed to rely on technique but, seemingly, just existed already in the worlds her directors created for her. Cukor seemed to understand that. One need only bear witness to Camille‘s first major set piece — set in a theater, a locale that will become a prominent fixture in the director’s canon — to witness a master class being put on by these two artists.  Cukor’s use of a series of elegant tracking shots to follow Garbo as she effortlessly navigates the male-dominated hallways of the Paris theater immediately signals the audience that her Camille is actually the one in control here. The eventual cut to Garbo’s timeless face — whether the playful one dallying with a smitten admirer with no hope of ever capturing her love or the rapturous one bestowed on the Robert Taylor character who will becomes her holy grail — simply confirms what Cukor has already established with his camera.

Camille will eventually sacrifice all for love — the Gay Guru is not letting the proverbial cat out of the bag here, the signals are there quite early on — and getting to that moment is surely one of the most exquisite journeys Hollywood has ever taken us on.  It’s widely considered Garbo’s greatest performance and, while the Guru hasn’t yet caught up with all of her other ones yet, he can report that since this one reduced him to a puddle of tears by the time that last frame turned to dark, he’s not likely to ever disagree.  GRADE = A+

Day #3

Holiday (1938)

Two-Faced Woman (1942)

Day #4

Rich and Famous (1981)

Day #5

Susan and God (1940)

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A minor film in Cukor’s oeuvre, A Bill of Divorcement nevertheless shows a director not just learning a craft but crafting a signature as well.  The Gay Guru need only direct his readers’ attention to the opening crane shot that tracks Katherine Hepburn as she is introduced to the guests at her family’s Christmas Eve ball (as well as to us, the audience) to illustrate the point that Cukor certainly already knew what he was doing when he climbed into that director’s chair on the set.

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That shout out to George notwithstanding, the film is most noteworthy today — and the sometimes contrarian Guru won’t argue here — for being the Great Kate’s screen debut.  Even here, Hepburn clearly has “IT,” that largely undefinable quality that makes an audience sit up and take notice and, as such, she carries much of the picture on her back.   If it falters, and the Guru is of the opinion that it does, the blame lays squarely at the feet of its other leads — John Barrymore and Billie (Glinda, the Good Witch) Burke — who hijack significant portions of the film, threatening to capsize it with their hambone performances.

At day’s end though, what one takes away from the film is that Kate and George were obviously meant to find each other:  only a year later, they joined forces on Little Women, Cukor’s first masterpiece.  Six more films would then follow in the next 20 years, including The Philadelphia Story, which helped to resurrect Hepburn’s career after she was labeled box office poison.  Then, a quarter of a century later, a pair of made-for-television movies in the mid to late 70s — the Emmy-winning Love Among the Ruins and a remake of The Corn is Green — would bring down the curtain on this most prodigious of partnerships.  We are all the richer for it. GRADE = B-

Zaza (1938)

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Day #6

David Copperfield (1935)

Little Women (1933)

Day #7

Edward, My Son (1949)

Day #8

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Day #9

A Double Life (1947)

Gaslight (1944)

Day #10

My Fair Lady (1964)

After four losses over the previous two decades, Cukor finally struck Oscar gold on his final nomination as he steered the smash 1957 Broadway musical My Fair Lady to the screen.  While certainly a crowd pleaser — as evidenced by the largest crowd to date at the Film Society’s retrospective — it is, from the Guru’s humble perspective, one of the least interesting entries in the Cukor canon.

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Was it perhaps the case of a director playing it safe and simply getting out of the way of material with an already proven track record?  That certainly can’t be it as Cukor does some quite lovely things with the Ascot Gavotte, Get Me to the Church on Time, and Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? numbers not to mention the luscious tracking shots he employs throughout the embassy waltz sequence.  No, it’s actually that damn house at 27A Wimpole Street that seems to stump Cukor.  Apart from a brief moment during the second act number You Did It, when the director utilizes shadows to demonstrate that Eliza Doolittle may finally be grasping the rather seedy undertones of her arrangement with Henry Higgins, the musical scenes that play out there (which comprise a majority of the film’s score) feel airless, as if they’ve been hermetically sealed.  A case of a camera that — apart from that one moment in time — feels like it’s more an observer of the action rather than a participant in it.

But the film got Cukor that career Oscar and although his nominated work on Little WomenThe Philadelphia Story, and A Double Life is far superior, not to mention his unrecognized work on Gaslight and A Star is Born, I can’t really begrudge the fact that a great artist finally got his due.  GRADE = B

Day #11

Let’s Make Love (1960)

Day #12

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

A Star is Born (1954)

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Every time the Gay Guru of Cinema revisits this title — one of the most  infamous examples of a studio’s butchery of a director’s vision — he exits the theater content in his knowledge that, despite those ill-conceived efforts, it’s all still there for the world to see in glorious Technicolor: the tremulousness of Garland that seems to be a real-life, high-wire act, one wrong step away from a complete nervous breakdown, the greatness of Mason who, seemingly without effort, anchors the film in a harsh reality when a lesser actor could so easily have allowed it to spin off into mere histrionics, and the nimble direction of Cukor who finds room enough for both of them, often in the same frame.

And yet, there too are the same miscues.  Garland’s seemingly interminable Born in a Trunk number (in the film-within-the-film that makes her Vicki Lester a star) that brings the film’s first half to a close with a resounding thud.  Cukor did not oversee this footage — he had already left for vacation when studio heads demanded reshoots — and why anyone felt the need to demonstrate again to the audience the astounding talent of the Garland character has always left the Guru scratching his well-coiffed head.  For, most certainly, the privilege has already been ours, as well as Norman Maine’s, much earlier on during The Man That Got Away, a scene so exquisitely performed by Garland and so gorgeously framed by Cukor in CinemaScope that it immediately finds a home in that pantheon of great movie moments.  And, then, what is one to make of Someone At  Last, a musical number which finds Garland donning both a lamp shade and a leopard rug while Mason, for once, looks completely lost at sea?

Yet, miscues aside, it remains a classic.  Garland and Mason were nominated for Oscars.  Cukor was not.  And, most inexplicably, The Man That Got Away lost the race for Best Original Song to Three Coins in the Fountain.  Go figure.  GRADE = A

Day #13

The Blue Bird (1976)

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Cukor had just helmed Life Among the Ruins the year before, receiving in the process rapturous hosannas from critics and an Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences so he was still clearly capable of delivering the goods at the age of 76.  Yet, just one year later, he unleashed The Blue Bird on the world.  It’s a genuine oddity, more fantasia than narrative film, and almost nothing in it works.

Based on a 1908 French play which, in turn, seems to be a Gallic riff on Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the film follows two peasant children who go on a quest to find the Blue Bird of Happiness only to discover in the end that the bird was in their own backyard all the time.  At the time, the film was meant to be an American/Soviet co-production designed to exist as a sort of artistic détente between the Cold War superpowers but the disastrous nature of the project — suffice it to say that no one spoke the other one’s language requiring Cukor to direct via an improvised form of sign language — is now the stuff of legend. Given that, it really is a miracle that anything in it even works but the short sequence when those Blue Bird-seeking innocents visit their long-dead grandparents — and, yes, the Guru is keenly aware of how ghoulish that sounds on paper — is actually quite touching, a fact due entirely to the performances of Will Geer and Mona Washbourne who, against all odds, pull it off.  Alas, it is just a brief respite from the storm.  GRADE = D

A Life of Her Own (1950)

The Actress (1953)

Day #14

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Born Yesterday (1950)

In 1950, two actresses gave performances for the ages: Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Although both scored Academy Award nominations, neither won. This bit of Oscar history has always left the Gay Guru perplexed and — truth be told — put him into a bit of a mood as he settled into his seat for the screening of Born Yesterday, the Cukor film that propelled its star, Judy Holliday, to the podium that year. And, yes, after it had unspooled, the Guru was more secure than ever in his belief that a grave injustice had been done.

l_42276_668cc75bHe does not wish, however, for this to be seen as a criticism of Ms. Holliday.  Just four years earlier, the role of Billie Dawn was a breakout one for her on the Great White Way and it is not difficult to see why.  She applies her God-given crackerjack comic timing to great effect and her performance is easily the best thing about the film. No, it’s the limitations of the role itself, as written, that should have kept Ms. Holliday from the podium that night in 1951.  In truth, Billie is a character that remains stubbornly stuck in the same gear.  For all the strides she makes, she is essentially the same woman the audience met in the first reel, albeit one who’s acquired a little more book knowledge along the way.

Nor does it help matters that the film as a whole hasn’t aged particulalry well. Indeed, the biggest laugh that the Gay Guru unleashed — when the William Holden character defends the integrity of Congres — could not have been what the playwright Garson Kanin had in mind when he first put pen to paper.

There are, of course, compensations:  Cukor and his cinematographer Joseph Walker open up the play nicely with some location shooting in our nation’s capital that makes one positively nostalgic for a time when everyone seemed to move at a more leisurely pace and, as always, it is a pleasure to watch Cukor move his players effortlessly around his cinematic “stage” without ever revealing the proscenium arch.  And, of course, there is Judy.

Alas, there is also Broderick Crawford, who is way too much here, and Bill Holden, who isn’t nearly enough.  All in all, one of the Guru’s least favorite films in the Cukor canon.  FINAL GRADE = C+

Les Girls (1957)

Day #15

Grumpy (1930)

Cukor’s first film, a truly minor piece in his overall cinematic jigsaw puzzle but a still quite pleasant affair, Grumpy is already establishing themes and demonstrating techniques that will come to define the director over the next half century.

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Ostensibly a mystery about a stolen diamond, its main concern instead resides with the roles people assume in order to achieve their goals. From Camille to My Fair Lady, from Gaslight to Rich and Famous, it’s a theme that runs throughout Cukor’s entire body of work.

No less important, Cukor is also already demonstrating a distinctive visual style in his debut feature.  A scene introduced via a shot through the keyhole of a door is a clear signal of the visual panache that would become commonplace in his films.  As for his legendary use of  mise-en-scène — a fancy French word that basically means how a director places his characters in the frame in relation to each other as well as as to the objects around them — well, that also announces itself here.

But the Guru will leave it that.  He doesn’t want to overburden Grumpy.  The film represents the baby steps of an artist who, in time, would become one of Hollywood’s premier directors during its Golden Age.  Nothing more, nothing less.  GRADE = B

The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)

Rockabye (1932)

Day #16

It Should Happen to You (1954)

The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951)

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Despite his passion for all things Cukor, the Gay Guru of Cinema is the first to admit that not every one of his films lends itelf to intensive scrutiny.  The Model and the Marriage Broker, a pleasant enough trifle with a rare lead performance from Thelma Ritter — a superlative character actress who had exploded onto the celluloid landscape just the year before in All About Eve — is surely one of them.

That’s not to say that those delicate Cukoresque moments the Guru so treasures don’t pop up from time to time. They do. And, as is always the case with the films from this particular era, he thoroughly grooves on the outdoor location shooting that showcases a long-since-vanished New York.

Despite these not inconsequential pleasures, and the fact that Ms. Riiter is more than up to the task of carrying the picture and, as was her wont, bringing down the house on more than one occasion with her now legendary world-weary delivery of some choice one-liners, the film seems content to merely percolate on a back burner for too much of its too-long 103 minutes. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Scott Brady and Jeanne Crain, while visually appealing, are entirely too bland as the romantic leads or that top-notch comedians Zero Mostel and Nancy Culp (in her screen debut) are wasted in quite unappealing roles.

Is it any wonder then that for his next two pictures, both released the following year, we find George back working with Ms. Holliday on The Marrying Kind or with Hepburn and Tracy on Pat and Mike?  FINAL GRADE = B-

Love Among the Ruins (1975)

Day #17

The Virtuous Sin (1930)

Tarnished Lady (1931)

Girls About Town (1931)

Day #18

Bhowani Junction (1955)

Justine (1969)

Day #19

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Her Cardboard Lover (1942)

Wild is the Wind (1957)

2012

A funny thing happened to the Gay Guru of Cinema on his way to the repertory house this Fall.  He stopped by the New York Film Festival and, quite surprisingly, found himself engaged by the current state of the cinema.  So, please, forgive him a slight detour as he reveals his favorite films of 2012 with the caveat that he still has a number of films to catch up with.

1.   Amour:  While always appreciative of the rigorously precise nature of Michael Haneke’s direction in earlier films such as The Piano Teacher and The White Ribbon, locating a beating heart in the Austrian director’s works had always proved to be an elusive goal for the Gay Guru.  Not so in Amour, a clinical but yet still emotionally devastating portrait of a well-to-do octogenarian couple experiencing the simultaneous mental and physical decline of their very beings.  Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, veterans of the French New Wave that emerged in the late 1950s to forever change the cinematic landscape, etch an indelible portrait of the ravaged couple and are – in all likelihood – the primary culprits in providing Haneke’s film with the warmth that the Guru had up to now been unable to locate in his other works.  While firmly secure in Amour’s status as the best film of 2012, the Gay Guru can only sit back now and wait to see if the film proves the glorious exception to the rule.

2. Holy Motors:  Four months after first seeing Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the term “bat-shit crazy” still springs immediately to mind when the Gay Guru ponders how best to describe it to people.  Unfolding over the course of a single day, the film follows the sole passenger of a limousine ride through Paris who morphs into a series of widely disparate and completely unconnected characters — a homeless woman, a family man, and a psychotic dwarf-like freak to name just three — and, in turn, proceeds to act out vignettes from those characters’ lives.  As a film that is more visual poem than narrative-based drama, it’s not one that would typically wend its way onto the Guru’s “Best in Show” run-down but there is just something so unique here that it cannot be ignored.  Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea but, should you be one of the Guru’s more adventurous followers, you may just want to take a leap of faith on it.

3. The Deep Blue Sea:  Simply recalling the many wonderful parts of Terence Davies’ only-somewhat-successful 2000 adaptation of The House of Mirth, the classic Edith Wharton novel of a woman caught in a web of hypocrisy spun by New York society clearly suggested to the Gay Guru that the director would be the right choice to direct The Deep Blue Sea, an adaptation of Terrence Rafferty’s 1952 play dramatizing the story of a woman caught in a web of hypocrisy spun in post-war London.  And, indeed, the Guru was right.  But, while that earlier piece was seriously hampered by the oh-so-mannered lead performance of Gillian Anderson as the ensnared Lily Bart — and, yes, the Guru does realize that his opinion here is in the distinct critical minority — Davies’ latest adaptation is single-handedly elevated to the upper echelons of 2012′s cinematic offerings by the remarkable performance of Rachel Weisz.  Her Hester Collyer — by turns proud, vulnerable, pathetic — is one for the ages.  That the Academy somehow still didn’t find space for her in their Best Actress line-up is the year’s greatest injustice.

4.  Zero Dark Thirty:  Kathryn Bigelow made history in 2010, becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for her work on The Hurt Locker.  While that film was for many their first introduction to her, the Gay Guru has been watching closely while Ms. Bigelow crafted fascinating genre pictures since the early 90s, with such titles as Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days to her credit.  Her new film – and for the Guru’s money, the best American film of 2012 – is yet another genre exercise, this one a remarkably dense procedural about one female CIA agent’s obsessive ten-year search for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the September 11 attacks.  While that search occupies the majority of her film’s nearly three-hour running time, Ms. Bigelow opts to bookend it – beginning her film with a startling segment that tackles head-on the CIA’s acknowledged use of torture and ending it with a riveting reenactment of the military raid on the bin Laden complex.  The former, predictably, has provoked criticism from those who view Bigelow’s restrained approach to the material — her calling card as a director — as a missed opportunity to forcefully condemn the practice of torture.  But the Guru thinks that’s missing the point entirely.  Like any artist worth her salt would, Bigelow simply allows the drama to unfold unfettered from personal bias while asking her audience to make up their own minds.

5. Lincoln:  Like this nation’s first president George Washington, the Gay Guru cannot tell a lie.  When Steven Spielberg emerged from behind the curtain at Alice Tully Hall to introduce the secret preview of his “almost completed” Lincoln at this year’s New York Film Festival, the Guru felt a small pang of disappointment.  While certainly a must-see title on any serious moviegoer’s year-end list, there was no denying that other as-yet-unreleased films whose names had been bandied about as possibilities for this year’s secret screening – Django Unchained, Les Misérables, and Zero Dark Thirty – would have sent the Guru into more sustained spasms of ecstasy.  Then, after the lights went down and an opening scene unspooled that exhibited Mr. Spielberg at his most cloying, the Gay Guru could only take a deep breath, locate the nearest exit sign to plot his escape route if necessary, and gird himself for the worst.  But then, like the proverbial Phoenix, what quickly emerged from the ashes of that initial misstep was a bracingly intelligent political thriller that is, arguably, the most subdued film of Spielberg’s storied career.  For that, one must certainly credit playwright Tony Kushner’s intelligent pruning of A Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s behemoth source material, down to a singular storyline.  Credit too Daniel Day-Lewis who – after his fire-and-brimstone turn in There Will Be Blood – executes a complete 180 here with an extraordinarily quiet, yet no less effective, lead performance.  And in bringing that majestic calm to the film’s core, Day-Lewis allows his supporting players – most notably Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones – to shine in more showy turns.  Throughout his career, collaboration has always been an important key to Spielberg’s work and in Lincoln it has clearly reaped significant dividends.

The Gay Guru of Cinema’s Acting Prizes of 2012:

Best Actor:  Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln“); runner-up: Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained“)

Best Actress:  Rachel Weisz (“The Deep Blue Sea“); runner-up: Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone“)

Best Supporting Actor:  John Goodman (“Flight“); runner-up: Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty“)

Best Supporting Actress:  Anne Hathaway (“Les Miserables“); runner-up: Alicia Vikander (“Anna Karenina“)

Cameo of the Year:  James Badge Dale (“Flight“)

What can the Gay Guru of Cinema say.  It’s been a lousy year in so many ways that he hasn’t felt capable of putting his cinematic musings to cyber paper in a very long time.  Yet, he is grateful to all of those who have encouraged him to persevere so he plans to reignite the blog with his annual Christmas wishlist of titles from his personal library that he would love to see make the move to Blu-ray in 2012.

From last year’s wishlist, Santa was kind enough to deliver the Blu debuts of both Barry Lyndon and Once Upon a Time in the West.   And he’s already left word in the Guru’s stocking that two other titles from the list — Lawrence of Arabia and Jaws — will be forthcoming in the new year.

So, without further ado, the Guru’s Top 10 wishlist for Blu (done appropriately in red and green) in 2012:

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

The Guru caught up with Polanski’s masterpiece of greed and murder in 1930s Los Angeles courtesy of a MoMA screening this past September.  It had been much too long and he was reminded, yet again, how on occasion lightning does indeed strike to give us a film in which every element is pitch perfect.  Chinatown is one of those films.

Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)

With the recent announcement that Kino will be bringing Fritz Lang’s searing noir Scarlet Street to Blu in 2012, it seems only appropriate to wonder where in the world is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, the title considered by many to be the quintessential film noir.  Nor does the Gay Guru disagree with that assessment.  What’s more, when speaking of those essential performances in film history, Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale must be on any serious list.

Far From Heaven (Haynes, 2002)

The Gay Guru’s favorite film from the first decade of the 21st century, Todd Haynes’ loving homage to the genius of Douglas Sirk (see below) should have seen the Blu light of day long before this if just for its extraordinary color palette.  Yet, given the shoddy treatment it received from its distributor with its bare-bones standard definition release, the Guru isn’t holding his breath.  And that’s certainly a pity, if not a crime.

Hannah and Her Sisters (Allen, 1985)

With the exciting news that we’ll be getting both Annie Hall and Manhattan in January of 2012 — a big deal since many thought that these titles would never see an upgrade — the Guru now awaits just the release of the last piece in Woody’s trifecta of masterpieces.  Not to mention that it’s also a serious mash note – in brilliant color — to the Guru’s adopted hometown.

Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)

See above.  All of Sirk’s 50s melodramas, each a masterpiece, scream out for a Blu upgrade.  Since three of them — All that Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind – are Criterion titles, the Guru would never have thought that Mr. Sirk would have to wait this long.  Is there a rights issue here?  Well, there’s not much the Guru can do but jot down his favorite of the maestro of melodrama’s masterworks on his wishlist and leave it up to Santa to do the rest.

 

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)

Another Criterion title in serious need of an upgrade.  If you’re a film lover but not yet familiar with Wong Kar-Wai’s work, do yourself a favor and put this one in your Blockbuster and/or Netflix queue.  It surely belongs in any legitimate discussion of last decade’s finest.  A film where all of the individual elements — each outstanding its own right — combine to make something singularly remarkable.

Nashville (Altman, 1975)

The Guru remembers being bowled over by Altman’s opus when it opened 36 years ago and, yet again, when he recently caught up with it as part of the American Museum of the Moving Image’s “See It Big” series.  His friends — aka KK and The Dude — were not so thrilled and he will be posting his thoughts on this unique film in the near future.  One of the top ten films of the 70s and, shockingly, out of print even on DVD, it’s time for Santa to make this happen.

The Poseidon Adventure (Neame, 1972)

Because every list needs a great popcorn feature that allows the Guru to sit back and let the brain take a rest, it seems a no-brainer that the granddaddy of the modern-day disaster genre needs to find its way home.  After all, we’ve had to endure the Blu release of not just the dreadful 2005 television remake of the same name but the equally heinous Poseidon from 2006 that sank quickly in theaters nationwide.  But, seeing as 2012 will be the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, it might not be too tall of an order for Santa to make this happen.

Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)

The Guru broke his own rule of limiting a director to one film on his list because, simply put, he needs Billy’s deadly duo of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard delivered under his Christmas tree ASAP.  Because if Stanwyck is iconic in the former, what then is Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in the latter?  Her final descent in madness down the grand staircase of her palatial home is one of those great moments that screams for Blu.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

After an interminable wait since Psycho‘s release in late 2010, the first quarter of 2012 will see a mini flood of Hitchcock treasures wind their way to Blu:  Notorious, Rebecca, Spellbound, and To Catch a Thief have all been announced.  Yet, as elusive as Scotty’s quest for Madeleine Elster, remains the crown jewel in the director’s canon — not to mention the film that sits proudly at #1 on the Guru’s list of the all-time greats.

A Man Escaped

“I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.”
Night Moves (1975)

The Gay Guru of Cinema has reached the moment when he must look across a chasm – the one separating those directors whose reverence among cinephiles the casual moviegoer gets and those for whom such love leaves that same moviegoer simply scratching his or her head – and try, somehow, to convince his readers to take an excursion over that divide for one such filmmaker. At the same time, he must acknowledge that cinephiles themselves are by no means a monolithic lot, each of us struggling at times to see what others might see in any given filmmaker’s body of work.

For the Guru, this dilemma is nowhere more acute then when confronted with the cinematic chat fests of Eric Rohmer, the beloved French director of such films as My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee. While Andrew Sarris, the dean of American critics and a personal hero of the Guru’s, once opined when discussing Maud that “there’s nothing more cinematic than the spectacle of a man and a woman staying up all night talking,” the Guru must respectfully disagree. While he certainly appreciates the intelligence behind Rohmer’s films, the Guru freely admits that the director’s often static camera makes it necessary for him to come to a Rohmer film armed with toothpicks should he feel the need to prop open his eyelids.

The point of all this chatter being that as the Guru feels about Rohmer so too do many people feel about Robert Bresson, the director of A Man Escaped which unspooled recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and which, in a perfect world, would be more widely seen. In fact, when the Guru emailed a good friend and fellow cinephile – let’s call him Zorba – about the possibility of joining him for the Bresson screening, only an ominous silence ensued. Clearly, Bresson, like Rohmer, is not everyone’s cup of tea. So, what is it about Monsieur Bresson that causes such antipathy?

First off, the Guru must come clean. He is certainly no expert here. Because there is always so much to see, inevitably, certain films slip through the cracks and, unfortunately, Bresson’s work has proved an elusive target for the Guru. Prior to this last screening, only Au hasard Balthazar and Pickpocket had managed to cross his cinematic path. The silver lining to this – because, as you know, the Gay Guru always looks for the sunny side of any street – is that playing catch-up isn’t a monumental undertaking because, over a 50-year career, Bresson only made 13 feature-length films. Yet, despite that, an astonishing percentage of them, 9 of 13, garnered votes in Sight & Sound’s 2002 poll of polls, with 4 of those 9 finding enough support to reach “must see” status for the Guru.

A Man Escaped, the first of those four to screen locally, is certainly typical of Bresson’s style in its use of non-professional actors amid minimal sets. Considered the director’s most hope-filled work, and thereby distinguishing itself among a body of work that more typically deals with death and tragedy, it is probably the most accessible of his films. Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a World War II prisoner of war, as well as informed by the director’s own year-long imprisonment by the Nazis for his role in the French Resistance, the film tracks the arrest, incarceration and subsequent escape of a man known only as Fontaine. Although the film rarely strays from his protagonist’s tiny cell over the course of its 99 minutes, its grip on the audience (or, at least on the Guru) remains firm because Bresson makes Fontaine’s arduous journey as much a spiritual one as it is physical. Rebuffed in his attempts to enlist fellow prisoners who are – by turns – already defeated, fatally impatient, or simply unbelieving – Bresson’s hero perseveres with an unwavering faith in the path he has chosen, thereby implicating not just his life but his soul in his plan’s outcome. Although ultimately rewarded – and, mind you, the Guru is not giving anything away here that the film’s title doesn’t already tell you – Fontaine’s faith is memorably tested in the film’s final section, when an unexpected change in circumstances threatens his plan, forcing him to not only hold true to that plan but to make a leap of faith in another human being. Although the Guru is not usually one for hyperbole, this passage is as riveting and exhilarating a piece of filmmaking as you are likely to see anywhere.

Looking back on A Man Escaped, it seems clear to the Guru that Bresson – whose work was always infused by his Catholicism – has purposely crafted his hero to be viewed as a Christ-like figure. And, indeed, perhaps the director’s reliance on such symbolism is the driving factor behind the distaste others have for him. The Guru can relate. In the past, gifted directors as diverse as Ingmar Bergman (Persona) and Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line) have given him fits with what seemed to him to be too heavy a hand. So then, why does Bresson work? Books have been written about him – and the Guru is anxious to start exploring those – but, for him, there is something so pure, so rigorous about both Bresson’s style and moral compass that transports him in the way that film should. Although he is fully aware that the director won’t be for everyone, he encourages his more adventurous readers – should they be craving something different – to seek out A Man Escaped.

The Gay Guru of Cinema’s Final Grade: A Man Escaped = A

A Little Night Music

The Gay Guru of Cinema recently swapped his cinematic cap for a musical theater one and hit the Walter Kerr Theater for a matinee of A Little Night Music, the first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 award-laden musical comedy about the romantic entanglements ensnaring several couples in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The revival made news recently, of course, with the announcement that two formidable interpreters of Mr. Sondheim’s songs, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, would be replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, the original stars of the production. The fact that both women had originated roles in other Sondheim shows – Ms. Peters twice in Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, Ms. Stritch in Company – only heightened the Guru’s anticipation.

Two questions were front and center in the Guru’s mind that day. No, not where he and his friends would adjourn afterwards for cocktails. Rather, had the production improved over time from the problematic one he had seen last winter? And, most obviously, was the promise inherent in the new casting fulfilled?

Before getting to those answers, if you will allow the Guru a few moments to rail against the onslaught of these “stripped down” revivals, of which Music is just one recent example. Now, the Guru is fully aware that the current economic climate on Broadway is such that it’s unlikely that audiences will be seeing a full-scale production of any Sondheim show in the foreseeable future. As such, he is genuinely grateful just for the opportunity to see Music. But he also knows that it isn’t impossible for a pared-down piece to work. Just two seasons ago, a transcendent revival of the aforementioned Sunday in the Park with George left the Guru in a puddle of tears on not one, but two, occasions. No, what gnaws at the Guru is the nagging suspicion that many of this new breed of musical exist not because of a director’s artistic vision but, rather, as a sop to financially reticent producers.

And, sadly, it feels as though that’s the case here. While he can envision this Music working as an intimate chamber piece at London’s Chocolate Menier Factory – the 180-seat theater where it originated – the Guru doesn’t think that its creative team has fleshed it out sufficiently for its Broadway home. Peering at the stage through the darkness, he had to remind himself – on more than one occasion – that he wasn’t simply staring at the contents of an underused storage locker.

The Gay Guru, however, could forgive, if somewhat begrudgingly, Music’s minimalist set design if the actors orbiting around it offered a compelling reason to do so. But, last December, during the final week of previews, not all of Music’s cast members seemed in sync, as if some were still trying to find their footing around Sondheim’s intricate rhymes. As a result, the show’s pace suffered, with certain scenes firing on all cylinders while others simply sputtered. As the Guru loves a useful analogy, one could have perhaps likened the show to a case of mismatched champagne, offering up a sparkling Dom Pérignon one moment only to be followed by a flat Asti Spumante the next. And, as most of my readers can probably surmise, just thinking about the latter is enough to cause the Guru to convulse violently.

Fortunately, the leading ladies of that first incarnation of Music were more than capable of doing their share of heavy lifting. Angela Lansbury, the 84-year-old Broadway legend who scored one of her greatest triumphs (as well as one of her five Tonys) as the demonic Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd more than three decades ago, may or may not have rung down the curtain on her brilliant theatrical career with her performance as Madame Armfeldt, the wise but world-weary mother of Zeta-Jones’ Desiree. If this is, in fact, the last time that Ms. Lansbury graced the Great White Way, she surely exited the theater’s stage door that final night with head held high. For, while she tripped up slightly over the tricky wordplay of Liaisons, her character’s signature number, at the performance the Guru attended, nowhere else did Ms. Lansbury offer the slightest evidence to suggest that she had lost either her justly famous comic timing or her ability to convey heartbreak through a simple turn of phrase.

The question surrounding Ms. Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, is not whether, at 40, she’ll be physically able to return to Broadway but whether, having pocketed a Tony Award her first time out of the gate, she’ll ever want to. Rightly or wrongly, Ms. Zeta-Jones has always struck the Guru as more an opportunist than actress. Perfectly pleasant in her breakout film, The Mask of Zorro, clearly out of her depth among the ensemble in the Oscar-winning Traffic, she captured her own Oscar just two years later by shrewdly playing category fraud with a perfectly-good-but-hardly-great performance in Chicago. Since then, she’s made a handful of mostly forgettable movies while earning millions shilling for T-Mobile.

If she never does return, it would be a pity because, for the first time in the Guru’s memory, Zeta-Jones, the actress, reached across that invisible divide and connected with him. There are better singers – and we’ll get to one shortly – but, in her rendition of Send in the Clowns, Sondheim’s most well-known song and one of Broadway’s legitimately great “eleven o’clock numbers,” she was achingly vulnerable. The palpable sensuality she brought to Desiree was no surprise – it’s her stock in trade after all – but this softness was a most welcome revelation. Will we ever see this side of her again? It’s anybody’s guess.

A not-so-pleasant revelation, as the Guru now turns his attention back to his most recent visit to the Walter Kerr, is that the still-in-place ensemble seems incapable of or, worse, uninterested in righting this ship. (Or could it possibly be that they just disagree with the Guru and don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with it?) So what more is there for him to say about the production itself? Only that his woes on this particular Saturday were multiplied by the absence of Aaron Lazar from the cast. The lone stand-out from Music’s ensemble the first time around, his comic and boisterous portrait of Carl-Magnus, Desiree’s arrogant younger lover, is helped in no small measure by a gorgeous baritone. Of course, neither did the fact that Mr. Lazar is quite easy on the eyes go unnoticed by your ever vigilant Guru.

Tucking the cast change announcement back into his playbill, and setting aside his disappointment, the Guru settled into his seat. Once the curtain rose and it became clear that the ensemble was not going to deliver anything new, his focus turned to Ms. Peters and Ms. Stritch. Three hours later, when the house lights came up for the final time, the Guru could only pronounce the producers’ casting coup a qualified success. Yes, both ladies are in fine vocal form, each delivering her character’s signature number in her trademark style, Ms. Peters giving Clowns a steely delicacy while Ms. Stritch, at 84, laces Liaisons with the same acerbic gusto she brought almost 40 years ago to The Ladies Who Lunch, arguably the greatest interpretation of any of Mr. Sondheim’s songs. No, the Guru’s major problem with these lovely ladies is that whoever was running them through their paces in rehearsal did not see fit to rein them in whenever they’re not singing.

While he supposes an argument could be made for Desiree being played as broadly as Ms. Peters plays her, no such argument exists for Madame Armfeldt. In fact, it’s the very antithesis of Liaisons, her lament to the lost art of subtlety and discretion. As she amply demonstrated a few years back in her acclaimed one-woman show At Liberty, Ms. Stritch can wring incredible poignancy from the quietest of moments. And she has many such moments here which is why it’s all the more disappointing when she feels it necessary to play to the back row.

Another such moment arrives late in the evening, this time courtesy of Ms. Peters, whose shimmering rendition of Send in the Clowns proves it’s a song that – if you will excuse the cliché – she was born to sing. If only the Guru could be convinced that Desiree is a part she was born to play. Alas, just as in her last Broadway outing in Sam Mendes’ ill-conceived revival of Gypsy in 2003, Ms. Peters has taken on a role that simply doesn’t suit her. Inside the actress’ petite frame, the larger-than-life Desiree, like the larger-than-life Mama Rose before her, comes across as merely and irritatingly hammy.

Ultimately, the Guru is a bit sad that Broadway, having waited 36 years for its return, cannot lay claim to a new, one-for-the-ages production of one of Sondheim’s greatest works. After such a long wait, it deserved one. Still, while they deserved a better vehicle, the memories created by Mses. Zeta Jones, Lansbury, Peters, and Stritch will linger on long after this revival’s final curtain falls. Those alone are worth the price of admission.

The Gay Guru of Cinema’s Final Grades for A Little Night Music

Cast #1 = B

Cast #2 = C+

Nosferatu

It may come as a shock to those who know him, but the Gay Guru of Cinema does, on occasion, find himself with not much to say about a movie. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he is feeling ungenerous towards it. It’s just that some titles simply don’t stir up the creative juices. Such appears to be the case with Nosferatu, the unauthorized 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which just kicked off the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s two-month celebration of vampire cinema.

First off, let it be known that while the Guru is no aficionado of this particular subset of movie, neither is he philosophically opposed to the idea of enjoying a little cinematic bloodletting now and then. Indeed, he recalls rather enjoying himself back in the day at both Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, two films that are part of BAM’s current schedule. (While it would be interesting to see whether those films hold up, their screening dates, sadly, fall during the Guru’s much-needed vacation which will place him a few thousand miles away from BAM.)

Rather, the problem between the Guru and the vampire picture is that it is — more often than not — the province of hacks whose films share, seemingly without fail, two lethal traits, needless noise and narrative incoherence. Simply put, for every Near Dark there are a dozen or more Blades. As such, the latest entry in this sweepstakes — the Twilight series — is, apart from Taylor Lautner’s chiseled abs, conspicuously off the Guru’s radar and likely to remain there. No, the Gay Guru ventured forth on a sultry August evening for different reasons.

First, Nosferatu landed on the Guru’s Sight & Sound list thus allowing him to continue his self-appointed cinematic quest to seek out all 272 titles on the big screen.  Second, and more importantly, Nosferatu is the work of F.W. Murnau, the German director responsible for Sunrise, widely regarded as the greatest of all silent films. Next to Sunrise, Nosferatu certainly feels like the work of an artist learning his craft. While Murnau would become renowned for his moving camera, here his camera is often static while he experiments with dissolves and other techniques. Still, there are moments — a procession of coffins carried down a city street, a pensive woman sitting by the sea — that clearly demonstrate the director’s eye for composition and hint at the glories to come a few years later.

As there is much to admire, the Guru doesn’t want to be too hard on the film. Ironically, his main issue with it is one that seems to plague all celluloid renditions of this tale. Namely, that until it arrives at the homestead of its titular bloodsucker, the film is a bit of a slog. The good news is that, given its brief running time of 85 minutes, it’s not too long until we reach Count Orlok, a name change dictated by the inability of Murnau to obtain the rights to Stoker’s novel. As played by the German actor Max Schreck, and as visualized by Murnau, Orlok’s cadaver-like visage has long since become iconic to even the most casual of moviegoers and is enough, on its own, to make Nosferatu a must-see for anyone serious about cinema as an art form.

The Gay Guru of Cinema’s Final Grade for Nosferatu = B+

Notorious

If you will excuse the Gay Guru of Cinema a brief moment so that he may provide his readers with a wee bit of background for this particular post.  Once a decade, the British film monthly Sight & Sound publishes a highly-regarded “Top 10” poll – voted on by a large roster of both critics and directors – a barometer if you will of the current cinematic climate.  While a journey through all of the films that earned votes in 2002 – the year of the most recent poll – was simply impossible, the Gay Guru, after establishing certain, yet completely arbitrary, criteria has managed to whittle the list down to a mere 272 films.

Scouring the local repertory calendars, the Guru was ecstatic when he realized that the first notch on this particular belt would be Notorious, one of five Hitchcock films that garnered enough support to make his cut-off.  Alfred Hitchcock has, of course, been elevated into many a cinephile’s pantheon and the Guru is no different.  Even in his misfires – and Hitch certainly had his fair share – there is always something happening, thematically and/or visually, to hold the viewer’s interest.

Certainly, Notorious has both in spades.  So much has already been written about the film – the unflinching sadomasochistic nature of the Grant/Bergman relationship, the astonishing subtleness with which Hitchcock transfers an audience’s sympathy to his doomed villain (a superb Claude Rains), the pitch-perfect performances of the film’s entire cast – that  the Guru was a bit stumped as to where to take this particular post.  Perhaps he could applaud the good taste of the 200 or so people who made the day’s first screening a sell-out.  On the other hand, if he was feeling particularly cranky, he could excoriate BAM for allowing such a damaged print to unspool in its theater.  It saddens the Guru terribly to see such a thing, no more so than in the case of one of the country’s national treasures, a sentiment borne out by Notorious’ 2006 induction into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

But determined not to dwell on the negative, the Guru’s thoughts turn to Ingrid.  Often better than her material, at the time of Notorious’ 1946 release she was four years removed from Casablanca – her most famous role – and two years removed from an Oscar for her exquisite turn in Gaslight.  Yet, her performance here is even better, her Alicia Huberman a more complex creature than either her iconic Ilsa, the woman who unlocks Bogie’s heart, or her Paula, the timid wife being driven mad by a nefarious Charles Boyer.  By turns theatrical, tremulous, cynical, vulnerable, and heart-breaking, Bergman smoothly navigates each shift in Alicia’s volatile emotional terrain.  Although she didn’t score an Oscar nomination that year – not surprising, really, given how Hollywood always viewed Hitch’s films as mere “entertainments” – her long career would see two more Oscars come her way.  Yet, the Guru is steadfast in his belief that she was never better than in this glorious triptych of films, and that her Alicia is its crown jewel.  A performance for the ages in a film for the ages.  For the Gay Guru, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Lest he be accused of playing favorites, the Guru must also acknowledge the invaluable contribution of Mr. Grant to the film’s success.  The astute critic David Thomson has called him the greatest of actors and there may just be something to that.  For, if we’re being honest, has there really ever been another actor who could so effortlessly craft a character such as Devlin, an emotionally-stunted man with a capacity for tenderness that’s equaled only by his capacity for cruelty?  Obviously, Hitch saw that in him and used Grant, to great effect, in four of his films.  From the dark depths of Suspicion and Notorious to the light-hearted lark of To Catch a Thief and, finally, to their comic thriller North by Northwest.  In the end, among actors, only another legend – Jimmy Stewart – would have as fruitful a relationship with the director.

Now, before leaving the building, the Gay Guru would like to address the question of genre, his eye having caught the film’s rather surprising inclusion in the new edition of the Film Noir Encyclopedia.  While he appreciates the effort put into this terrific new resource, the Guru must protest Notorious’ place in it.  While he will have more to say about the concept of noir in later posts, the films of that genre must – at their most basic level – revolve around protagonists who are not firmly rooted in a moral universe, whose sense of right and wrong is, for whatever reason, out of alignment.  That’s just not the case here.  Yes, Bergman and Grant treat each other badly but their emotional abuse of one another is self-contained.  Ben Hecht’s Oscar-nominated screenplay never intimates that Alicia and Devlin’s larger worldview and, therefore, their ultimate goal – here, the thwarting of a Nazi plot in Rio de Janeiro – has been compromised by their personal frailties.

No, Notorious, like the director’s Vertigo 12 years later, is first and foremost a perverse pas de deux between two damaged souls dressed up in the trappings of a stylish thriller.  Indeed, the dysfunctional relationship between the sexes was one of Hitch’s favorite themes and is present, to varying degrees, in all five of his films that found support in the Sight & Sound poll, with Psycho, Rear Window and the aforementioned North by Northwest and Vertigo completing that anointed quintet.  From its Fall schedule, the Guru knows that a restored print of Psycho will be screening at New York’s Film Forum this October in honor of its 50th anniversary.  It should come as no surprise to his readers that he is already salivating at the thought.

The Gay Guru of Cinema’s Final Grade: Notorious = A+

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