Cinema Retro columnist David Savage brings us up to date on the movie event scene in New York City.
It's nearly Thanksgiving and as the holiday season breaks into full gallop,
the film calendar is already bursting here in New York. Is it possible not to overcommit oneself? A major
Pasolini festival gets underway November 28th at the Film Society of
Lincoln Center (see below), followed by the 16th edition of Spanish
Cinema Now, also at FSLC, beginning December 7th. Newly restored
35mm prints of Pietro Germi's classic Divorce Italian Style (1961) and
Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon (1956) are playing at Film Forum (filmforum.org) through November
22nd, not to mention the roster of foreign and indie features
rolling out weekly for the press, and the seductive eye candy of newly
remastered and special edition DVD box sets from Warner Bros., Universal,
Criterion, etc. winking on the shelves – how is a film reporter supposed to
keep on top of this all and keep a steady job at the same time?
Thanksgiving doesn't bring to mind many great movies, but rather a few
memorable movie moments. One I’d like to offer up is the scene in Annie Hall
(1977) when Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer is invited by Annie (Diane
Keaton) to Thanksgiving dinner at her parents' house. Allen correctly
identifies Thanksgiving as the WASP-iest of all holidays, given its Pilgrim
roots, and turns it into one of the funniest Jewish-Among-WASPs moments in
movie history. In the sequence Allen recreates Norman Rockwell's famous
painting of a New England family at
Thanksgiving dinner and inserts himself into the tableau vivant. As the
struggling comic Alvy tries out joke after joke on Annie's family, presided
over by a frosty Colleen Dewhurst as Annie's mother, all of them fall with a
thud in confused silence. Eventually we see him transform into a rabbi at the
table. It's one of those scenes that showcased Allen's loose brilliance as a
director during the period, and also reminds me how few young directors today are
willing to mine the WASP/Jewish culture clash for comedy. There was the original
The Heartbreak Kid (1972) with
Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd, written by Elaine May, and Jerry Stiller
and Anne Meara have perhaps made the most of their comic culture clash of a
marriage of all entertainers. But since then? A few recent exceptions are Meet the Fockers (2004) and Meet the Parents (2000), both written by
Jim Herzfeld, and this year’s Knocked Up
(2007) from Judd Apatow. While the story doesn’t address the topic explicitly,
Apatow makes the most of the contrast between the Jewish central character, Ben
Stone and the tall blonde shiksa
Alison Scott, whom he unwittingly knocks up after a fateful meeting in a
nightclub. The screenplays that treat this subject usually come from a Jewish
writer, suggesting that the satirical perspective (following conventional
wisdom) comes from the cultural outsider, as was the norm for the last half
century. But now that WASPS are rapidly dying off as a demographic in the U.S., and more
importantly as a cultural force, it will be interesting to see if a comedy
comes along from a WASP’s perspective. It might be controversial, if said
writer is so fortunate. If I’m missing any obvious examples other than the
above-mentioned, do let me know.
This won't mean a thing to our international readers, but American baby boomers are in mourning over the death of a man whose name they did even know. Actor Dick Wilson died at age 91 - but for a generation of TV viewers, he was the star of the Charmin TV commercials in which he played fussy store clerk Mr. Whipple who constantly warned customers "Please don't squeeze the Charmin". The reference was the to the ultra soft toilet tissues that was so intoxicating to the public that they pinched the rolls like they were Sophia Loren. The British-born Wilson appeared as Mr. Whipple in the popular TV ads that ran an astonishing 21 years - not counting a limited return to the role in 1999. Wilson's resume also included guest shots on countless hit TV shows ranging from Bewitched to Hogan's Heroes and a recurring part on Perfect Strangers. In lamenting his death, a Proctor & Gamble executive rightly called Wilson "one of the most recognizable faces in the history of American advertising" and attributed much of the success of the Charmin brand directly to the actor. One could say that toilet paper gave Dick Wilson the "roll" of a lifetime.
LEE PFEIFFER examines a new set of Warner videos showcasing a diverse group of leading ladies.
Warner Home Video has released an eclectic collection of five DVDs in a boxed set titles Leading Ladies Collection Vol. 2. The set consists of some titles that have been eagerly awaited on DVD for quite some time: Up the Down Staircase, Shoot the Moon, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, I'll Cry Tomorrow and Rich and Famous. Here's our take on the individual films:
Up the Down Staircase- Released during the same year as To Sir, With Love- 1967- Up the Down Staircase is the fact-based story of a seemingly frail and naive young woman who takes a job teaching high school in a ghetto neighboorhood. The book was a best-seller and the film was highly anticipated. I've never been a huge fan of Sandy Dennis. Her whiney, mousey persona worked appropriately in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but left me irritated in films such as The Out-of-Towners. In Up the Down Staircase, however, I realized I had misjudged this fine actress. She gives a winning performance that consistently surprises. She's tender when you think she'll be tough and tough when you think she'll be vulnerable. The white teacher in the ghetto school concept is cliched today, but at the time it was ground-breaking stuff. Unlike the capable, somewhat intimidating Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, Dennis is the epitome of vulnerability. She has to contend with suicidal students, unrequited love, uncaring administrators,a failed attempt to reach a bright delinquent and a host of other problems. Every time you think you know the direction the story will go in, it deviates just enough to keep you interested. There are a number of loose ends that are not conveniently tied up at the end of the story, but that seems a realistic approach. The film has probably lost some of its power over the decades, but it remains highly enjoyable. The only extra is an original trailer.
SHOOT THE MOON- Director Alan Parker's heartbreaking look at the dissolution of a marriage and its impact on all concerned is so brilliantly enacted, written and directed that you forget you are watching a movie and feel like an intruder on real people's lives during their most vulnerable moments. Diane Keaton and Albert Finney are the couple coming apart at the seams even as they try to stay together for the sake of their brood of young daughters. Both are fundamentally decent, but flawed people and its hard to root for or against either as the disintegrating union takes a devastating toll on the entire family. The film reminds us of what an enormous talent Keaton can be in a dramatic role and how Finney, in one of the great performances of his career, has been woefully underutilized as leading man. This is not a feel-good movie, but it is essential viewing. Extras include a winning commentary track by Alan Parker and screenwriter Bo Goldman, and the original trailer.