Cagney returns to the screen for a final time.
Miloš Forman’s 1981 American epic Ragtime, based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow, has a sprawling patchwork structure that reminded me of the films of Robert Altman. I was unsurprised, therefore, to learn afterwards that Altman had originally been attached to direct the picture before Forman took over the project. The kaleidoscope of characters and Americana from the beginning of the 20th century, before the Great War, is apparently pared down from the tangled branches of narratives in the source novel. The story of the film becomes primarily focused around the tragic events in the life of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (played brilliantly in an Oscar-nominated performance by Howard Rollins), a black piano player who turns to violence to try to achieve personal vindication after suffering a series of gross injustices.
Forman apparently saw something in the hopeless plight of Walker’s character that reminded him of the injustices he saw under communism in the Czechoslovakia of his youth. The choice to elevate Walker’s story to prominence gives a narrative focus (as Ebert points out in his review) that brings an emotional clarity and sharpness to the climax of the film, which might have been diffused if more time had been spent on the other threads of the story.
- Composer and Prestidigitator Daron Hagen. (Photo by Karen Pearson)
American composer Daron Hagen has had an impressive and varied career, having worked with many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest musicians. He has received numerous awards, including a 2014 Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His works in a diverse array of styles and forms range from symphonies and concerti, to song cycles, and nine operas. His forthcoming opera, Orson Rehearsed, is being premiered next year, in September 2018, with his collaborators, Chicago’s Fifth House Ensemble. Orson Rehearsed is based on the life and work of Orson Welles, but it is as groundbreaking and category-defying as many of Welles’s own projects. It draws inspiration from Welles’s career as a stage director, radio star, filmmaker, and even as a magician. Mr. Hagen has created a trailer for the project, which gives some idea of how unique this opera will be:
I was pleased to discuss this new work with Daron Hagen in an email interview.
F for Films: What makes Orson Welles the man an attractive subject for an opera?
Daron Hagen: I consider Welles to have been the quintessential American Artist, and his life story a parable with which every intelligent American can, on some level, relate. His intense commitment to social justice, manifested so clearly in his choice of subjects and in his personal decisions as a “self-made” intellectual whose first act was destined—from its explosive beginning with Citizen Kane—to be perceived (rightly or not) as his best. He was emotionally, intellectually, and by nature in pursuit of that which is larger than himself, and, as he got older, physically, the toll of that quest was written on his body. His choice of Kane, Othello, and Falstaff as artistic avatars alone would make him ripe as a figure for operatic treatment, but his fascination with the artifice required in the articulation of truth makes him the perfect operatic hero.
I had the privilege of revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion with my daughter this week. The film is a fascinating example of Hitchcock’s work, because though it is often seen as a weaker entry in his filmography, I find it to have some of the most startling possibilities for a viewer of any of his films. Most of his films wrap up with a neat finish, whether tragic or triumphant. This one presents ambiguities that are not really resolved, right up to the final moments of the film. The film is a psychological examination of an unhealthy marriage, with an ending that is dramatically different from the novel that it was based upon. The way we interpret that ending can be quite different, however, depending on what perspective we bring to the film, as I discovered while discussing the film with my daughter after our viewing.
Suspicion is the first of four films that Cary Grant would make with the Master of Suspense. He would go on to star in my favorite Hitchcock film, Notorious, as well as To Catch a Thief, and finally North by Northwest. The story is based on the novel Before the Fact, by Francis Iles, and tells the story of a young, bookish woman named Lina (Joan Fontaine) who impetuously falls in love with gadfly, socialite, and playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant). The two marry, and it soon becomes apparent that he his charm and seductive manner covers over his lack of means: his “wealth” is an appearance built out of gambling windfalls and friendly loans, and eventually theft. François Truffaut summarized the scenario, and how it differs from the source material in this way:
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Zorro did not exist in the popular imagination. He seems to be as timeless a creation as his legendary English counterpart, Robin Hood, who traces his origins to ballads from the middle ages. Just under a century ago, however, the legend of Zorro was born in the 1919 serialized story “The Curse of Capistrano,” by Johnston McCulley, telling the story of the masked avenger who defends the poor and the oppressed. Almost immediately, the story was picked up for the screen by Douglas Fairbanks, and adapted into the first Zorro film, The Mark of Zorro. The film was directed by Fred Niblo, who would go on to direct other Fairbanks adventures, and also the original screen version of Ben-Hur in 1925.
Not so nice laaaady.
Martin Scorsese has said that he did not originally want to make The King of Comedy (1983) when it was first presented to him by Robert De Niro—he “didn’t get it.” But, as he has explained in a couple of retrospective interviews, he eventually came around to understanding the script. The story follows the improbably named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who wished to make it big as a stand up comedian on the Jerry Langford (a brilliantly simmering Jerry Lewis) late night show. When Langford brushes off the unproven Pupkin, Pupkin’s attempts to gain Langford’s attention grow more desperate, culminating in him kidnapping Langford along with his equally obsessed and unstable friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard).
Scorsese told critic Richard Schickel (in his interview book, “Conversations with Scorsese”) that at first, he thought that it was “just a one-line gag: You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show. Hmm.” But he later began to see what De Niro saw in the script by Paul Zimmerman: the way celebrities like De Niro have to deal with “the adulation of the crowd, and the strangers who love you and have got to be with you and have got to say things.”
Wim Wenders’s 1984 film Paris, Texas (which I have written about before), never reaches the town referenced in the title, but it is filmed in large part on location in various Texas towns from El Paso to Galveston. The final sequences take place in my home town of Houston.
Houston was a big city even in the early 1980s, riding one of the crests of an oil boom that was about to come crashing down later in the decade. But it has exploded in both population and sprawl since that time, now boasting one of the nation’s largest and most diverse populations. Houston is also infamous for tearing down and replacing old architecture, but a number of the iconic locations, so memorably captured by Robby Müller’s cinematography, can still be experienced in person.
Fragmentary impressions of a silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, and starring Reneé Falconetti as Joan:
- The film is unique in my experience in the way that it refracts the point of view we experience through the constantly shifting angles deployed on the screen for brief moments before another equally striking image replaces it.
- The kaleidoscopic effect, rather than abstracting and distancing me, drew me into the heart of the emotion, and the spiritual nature of the simple narrative.
- Director Carl Th. Dreyer employs a rapid pace of editing that at times anticipates the style of a latter day music video.
- The pace is combined with the bewildering variety of camera angles, in almost exclusively medium to extreme close-up shots. The few instances of zooms or tracking shots are used with memorable specificity to emphasize the mood of the judges.