Friday, August 26, 2016

Eye on Movies; "Florence Foster Jenkins" and "La Tete D'Un Homme"

Righteous Lovebirds

Whatever our vocations, few of us have a real grasp of our talents. We’re either better or worse than we think we are. Sometimes much better. Sometimes much worse.

Among those whose perception most exceeded their talent was one Florence Foster Jenkins, the titular subject of one of the best, most delightful movies now playing.

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a real-life American high-society matron of the last century. Jenkins was gripped by a fantastic delusion: that she was an opera singer. And a great opera singer at that. That she was completely tone deaf is the comic underpinning of much of this good-hearted comedy, deftly directed by the excellent Stephen Frears, who has portrayed upper class folly before in such classics as Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen.

A passionate music lover, Jenkins founded the Verdi Club in New York, in 1917, an exclusive society dedicated to "fostering a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English.” What the club mostly seemed to be though was a showcase for Jenkins’ vaunting vocal extravagances. She was no post-modern, winking ironist, nor a Jack Benny, a competent musician playing for laughs; She was as real and absolute as you can get. She couldn’t hit a note in front of her, but thanks to her inherited wealth, there was nothing to stop her in her sincerity.

That the beauty she undoubtedly heard in her own ear was not heard by anyone else daunted her not one bit. Feeding her ambitions, she was safely encircled by a coterie of dedicated and loving fans (the Verdi Club had a membership of 400, including Enrico Caruso and Cole Porter). Even her vocal coach cheerfully plays along with non-compliments like “You’ve never sounded better.” The lengths some of the characters go to both protect her from the truth and from having to actually hear her sing are hilarious and charming.

Her most loyal fan of all is her partner of over 30 years, St. Clair Bayfield, a British Shakespearean actor of limited talent, but, as the movie tells us, well aware and content with it. Played with enormous brio and loving attention by Hugh Grant, Bayfield spends most of the movie juggling three balls: running between Florence and his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson); managing Florence’s career; and, most importantly, protecting Florence from the world’s slings and arrows, from the savaging she’s doomed to face when she decides to step out of her bubble and under the eye of a wider public with her legendary 1944 Carnegie Hall debut. He wins the viewer’s heart, as well.

The third pillar in the story is her long-suffering accompanist, boyish and baffled Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg as so uncomfortable in his skin, it just may slough off. McMoon is a shaky underfed chap on whom a coat of paint would look baggy. He’s equally driven, except, unlike his patron, he seems to possess great skill as a pianist. He knows he’s risking his career ambitions, but being a musician (meaning no money), he must take the job. It’s not long before he falls under Florence’s spell.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a joy for most of its two hours (though some of the performances at the bottom of the cast list are out of tune). It pulls off the difficult balancing act of getting us to root for, and delight, in Jenkins unstoppable spirit, while never forgetting the fact that, well, she stank up the room every time she took the stage. (At one point, my wife and I both cried out, “No, please no! Don’t sing that Mozart!” She tackles the “Queen of the Night” aria so hard, I nearly called for an ambulance.)

Whatever Jenkins’ lack of pitch, director Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin pitch the film just right. Most crucial of all though is the acting and in this, Meryl Streep embodies Jenkins’ deluded grandeur with exuberant perfection. She fully inhabits Florence Jenkins without a wink of condescension. It’s another superb portrait in her late-career gallery of grand eccentrics (among them, Julia Child in Julie and Julia). By embracing her with such artistry (even going so far as to actually sing like Jenkins, if this article is accurate), we embrace her as well.

That Hugh Grant matches her every step away, shunning his stuttering image to play a man of unbridled dedication, is to pay the both of them the highest of compliments. The screen is theirs.


Like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, is one of those detectives the movies can never let go. Even after Bruno Cremer’s successful run at the character from the 1990s to 2000s, filmmakers still turn to Georges Simenon’s novels for inspiration, with Rowan Atkinson (yes, “Mr. Bean,” that’s right) the latest to take a stab at portraying the doughy determined detective.

Where Holmes is an outsider and inspired amateur, Maigret is the professional insider, a willing cog in the system. His appeal may, in part, lie in his image as the perfect government bureaucrat: persistent, pragmatic, patient, willing to cut red tape when necessary in his pursuit of truth and justice. And, unlike Holmes, he’s not overstuffed with self-regard. He’s the clerk you hope to encounter at the DMV, the guy you most want heading the investigative team should you ever be murdered.

Belgian author Georges Simenon created his legendary detective Inspector Maigret in 1931. Movie producers seized on the books almost right away, filming them one after the other as they came out. Simenon’s fourth Maigret novel La Tete d’un Homme (Head of a Man) was first filmed in 1933 by director Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko and Tales of Manhattan).

It’s a beautifully photographed, striking film (as seen on a DVD I checked out from the Berkeley Public Library.) The plot concerns Maigret’s (Harry Bauer) unravelling of a murder plot involving, among others, an emigrant medical student (Valery Inkjinoff), who, facing death from cancer, embraces nihilism. The plot lurches about with Maigret seeming a little too passive at several points. But the atmosphere is delightfully Parisian and the camerawork often astounding: one sequence stations an inquiring detective in front of a projection screen as it dissolves from scene to scene as he conducts his interviews.

The film may seem slight. Bauer is not a particularly memorable Maigret. But the film is a treat for fans of vintage French film and Inspector Maigret.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Eye on Books: "Silver Screen Fiend" by Patton Oswalt

Even if you’re not much into stand-up comedians, you might know of Patton Oswalt. He first caught my eye with his endearing performance as needy, stout-hearted constable Bob Sweeney—a sort of rural Lou Costello—on the grandly entertaining AMC series Justified.

In December 2013, Oswalt appeared as a guest programmer on TCM where he introduced four films, two of which I had never heard of: Aaltera (from Spain) and The Wind Journeys (a French-Belgian production).

At first, I reacted with my usual scowl—as if this were Kim Kardashian introducing Last Year at Marienbad. Quickly though, Oswalt showed himself to be an intelligent and keen observer, as well as a daring programmer. I don’t recall much about those two films, beyond being impressed that Oswalt, known primarily as an entertainer, would cast his net so far and so deep. He went places few other TCM guest programmers would go.

Recently, Oswalt published a book, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film (New York: Scribner, 2015, 272 pp. $15.00). The title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s only partially a book about film; the “addiction” is really an obsession; and the life lessons only come when the obsession fades.

For me, reading this book was like looking into a broken mirror reflecting piecemeal reflections of my younger self: a smile here, a cocked eyebrow there, a wide and a wondrous eye. I’d been as obsessed as Oswalt when a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The obsession ended with the distractions of entering college. Along the way I picked up a few of the habits that Oswalt describes, one of which I quit only in the last ten years.

I see my film going then as an obsession rather than an “addiction.” True, it did have a physical feel to it, as though a foreign chemical had imbued my very DNA, turning me into a shiny-eyed zombie. With movies, I was like a moth rushing a candle. When you’re watching a dozen movies a week, including all-night weekend marathons, questions of taste and aesthetics matter less—much less—than getting that fix, that magical suffusion of silver light.

I’d watch anything: even the Bowery Boys. In my frenzy, I had the disturbing sense that if I could somehow see every movie ever made (or at least the ones in the two movie books which I checked off religiously) I’d achieve wholeness, my life tied up in a neat celluloid beribboned package. Like Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, I would cry out “It is accomplished!” as I slumped dead in my first row seat as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla comes to its end.

(One other peculiar parallel between Oswalt’s life and mine: I attempted, for a short while, standup comedy. However, I learned, to the loud crashing of my ego, that I was a bad, very bad, standup comedian. (“How bad were you?” the audience roars.] Well . . . I was so bad, the audience successfully petitioned club management to replace me with Carrot Top.)

Oswalt’s life as a “sprocket fiend” began in May 1995 at the New Beverly Cinema, a retro house in La Brea, California, with two Billy Wilder features, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole. (This was at the dawn of the rise of independent moviemaking.) He’d been a mere regular moviegoer up to that time (in fact, he saw Pulp Fiction at the same San Francisco theatre I did the previous year. At the end, he    
provides a list of every movie he saw during this period, with places and dates. Throughout I found myself musing at how we must have just must missed each other in various San Francisco movie lobbies.)

“I’ll create one of those things someday, I tell myself,” Oswalt puts it, obsession curling its claws into his psyche. “And my films will march and lunge and glide and swoop in ways no one has ever dreamed of. All I have to do is keep watching. I’ll know when to make that move.”

The when of “that move” is never made clear. “…I have every reason to believe,” he writes later, “that this [constant relentless movie-going] is a viable process for mastering a skill.”

That seems to be about it for Oswalt’s game plan to be a movie director, even though he’s closer to the center of the action than I, who stayed safely in Northern California, ever was. He wrote six screenplays, sold three, none of which, unfortunately, he discusses in any detail—screenwriting is a legendary route to the director’s chair. He landed some tiny film roles all the while hustling stand-up gigs. He didn’t take some of the other steps I thought were required, like networking at film schools and screenwriter conventions. The closest he seems to get is staff writer for MadTV.

I took a different and, I’d say, more tangible steps when I returned to regular movie-going in the mid-1980s, with goal of being a screenwriter. In addition to writing screenplays, I tried to immerse myself in the business of Hollywood with workshops, conventions and subscriptions to Daily Variety and Premiere, both of which I read assiduously. Once upon a time, I could tell you which side Michael Ovitz parted his hair on, or Sherry Lansing’s favorite perfume. (Surely, memory loss can be a blessing.)

Outside standup comedy, Patton Oswalt’s only life was being a screen fiend, a pure movie junkie, like the teenage me. His dream of being a movie director might have been a mere rationalization. A dream. To extreme movie buffs, a darkened theater is all the reality there is. Everything outside those walls is distracting unreality. They risk love and honor for the sake of an all-night horror-thon (during which Oswalt stubbornly stayed behind in the theatre, letting his date walk to her car alone . . . at two in the morning. Alone.)

Oswalt’s obsession lasted four years, as he traveled from mostly highbrow films (Persona and L’avventura) down through mainstream movies (A Civil Action and Armageddon) to the sediment (Ghidra, Three-Headed Monster and Spice World: An obsessive’s need knows no bounds and I should know. I recall struggling with all my soul to stay awake until 2:00 AM to watch Reunion in Reno on a Friday night in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Don’t remember that one? Me neither.

After each screening, Oswalt would dash home and check off the movie as listed in three books he kept on hand: The Film Noir Encyclopedia, Cult Movies and The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. As for me, I typed up my own lists, listing cast, director, writer, composer et al. As for check marks, I first used Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV and then Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies through its multiple editions, until about ten years ago when my wife started muttering about “men in white coats.”

Oswalt’s style is, naturally, like a stand-up routine: bright, choppy and fast, if not always fluid. In addition to funny tales of film going (including an encounter with noir legend Lawrence Tierney) there are also long riffs on Oswalt’s adventures in the comedy business in the 1990s. Comedy buffs might find these sections of greater interest. I didn’t laugh that much because I wanted him to talk more about movies, to plunge deeper, express the joys we all know he experienced, because we’ve experienced them too.

Unlike genuine addicts (you know, heroin, meth, alcohol), Oswalt had an easy time kicking the habit—all it took was a couple of viewings of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, exactly four years after his addiction started, to help him realize “that for all our bluster and detailed exotic knowledge about film, we weren’t contributing anything to film.”

“Movies,” he rightly concludes, “—the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad)—
should be a drop in the overall fuel formula of your life. . . . The engine of your life should be your life.”

Once he reaches this conclusion and frees himself (along with burying a friend and mentor who helped him along during his obsession), the book should wrap up nicely. Unfortunately, it goes on longer than it should with a swarm of extras, including a collection of “Collected Writings on Film.

Of these, the most amusing is Oswalt’s vision of a “netherworld movie palace,” where the productions that never happened in this world can at last be seen. Count me among those who can’t wait for my expiration date so I can see Orson Welles’ version of Heart of Darkness. Among other afterlife surprises Oswalt envisions are Sam Peckinpah directing Superman and Terrence Malick directing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (This, frankly, is ridiculous beyond words: Everyone knows Sam Peckinpah—and only Sam Peckinpah—will direct Blood Meridian.)

I recall Louis Malle being quoted as saying, “Life is more important than film.”
Clearly, that idea struck both of us. Since he walked away from a compulsion that had lost meaning, Patton Oswalt achieved great success as both comedian and actor. (And if he plays his cards right, he could even become a regular TCM host.) Though he’s not yet the director he dreamed of being, he’s opened up to real life, bookended by glories (the birth of his daughter Alice) and appalling tragedy

As for me, I quit screenwriting years ago. However smart and clever I thought I was next to Patton Oswalt, clearly, I was nowhere near smart and clever—nor lucky—enough.

Maybe I’ll take up comedy again. . . .

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.