Thursday, December 29, 2016

Trailers and ghosts

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

It’s a common complaint that trailers nowadays give away too much. I haven’t seen America’s Sweethearts, but on the basis of the trailer, I feel like I have. Of course, depending on how you look at it, this might mean that the trailer functions just perfectly, allowing the viewer to save the ten bucks without even minor regret. I was also sure that the Planet of the Apes trailer had given me all I needed, but since the film’s directed by Tim Burton I went anyway. The film was just as dull as the trailer – and, of course, about sixty times as long. Probably the main advantage of seeing Planet of the Apes was that the five or six trailers preceding it gave me lots of additional insights into movies I can avoid over the coming while. Of course, the trailers are all on the Internet nowadays anyway, so there probably wasn’t even that much real advantage.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

If it’s the job of a trailer to make the film look as good as possible without yielding up all its secrets, then the one for Hedwig and the Angry Inch must be the recent best. On the basis of those three minutes, the film is a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like cornucopia of outrageous gender-bending tableaux, including lyrics up on the screen for audience participation, cartoon inserts, and general unpredictability all over the place. It looks like a matter of taste, sure, but you imagine the film’s going to be consistently wacky and diverting. Well, I now know that the trailer was concocted only by meticulously pruning the film’s most eccentric and colourful moments. The rest is oddly dour, even depressing.

The film is written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also stars in it (quite impressively). Hedwig is born a boy behind the Berlin Wall, but undergoes transgender surgery to marry an American GI. That gets her to freedom in the States, but the GI soon walks out on him, and then the Wall comes down anyway. Hedwig now tours through a series of dismal concert venues with her inexplicably faithful band, capitalizing on her sexually ambiguous persona. Much of the film consists of musical performance (the songs generally aren’t at all bad, both on their own terms and as knowing parody of the glamrock idiom); in between, Hedwig bemoans its past and present problems.

Hedwig’s surgery was botched (as one of the songs puts it, “Six inches forward and five inches back; I’ve got an angry inch”) and the character occasionally marshals this trauma as performance art. At other times, Hedwig’s seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. The film constructs a surprisingly comprehensive study of the character, and there’s something grandly imaginative about the notion of sexual confusion served up as a legacy for political transgression. It’s a rather hermetic metaphor though, and the film never manages to override an air of “So what?” Through sheer force of will I guess, Rocky Horror still manages to make a lot of people buy into its worldview – if only for 90 midnight minutes every now and then. Hedwig is just too reticent: ultimately, it seems like little more than another sob story. Except for those few scattered moments (about a trailer’s worth) of eccentricity.

Ghost World

I haven’t seen the trailer for Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, but I feel confident in asserting that it couldn’t possibly have succeeded in giving away the whole movie. This is about two young women – apparently congenitally ironic and apathetic and distanced from most of their peers – in the weeks after high-school graduation, hanging out around their boring neighborhood and wondering vaguely what to do. One eventually goes to work in a Starbucks clone and gradually seems to be inching toward normality. The other holds on longer, but she’s clearly under siege. She’s played by Thora Birch, who’s just about perfect – as opaque as a truly alienated teenager should be, but no more than that.

The movie has lots of funny lines, generally rooted in sarcasm or in the sheer consistency of Birch’s resistance to much of what surrounds her. But the film’s real strength is in how it defines and maintains a rather unique mood of creeping dread – rooted in Birch’s pervasive antipathy, her secret nervousness about the course she’s on, and her reluctance to change. During the course of the film she tries out a vast array of clothing, from a tacky dinosaur T-shirt to the almost elegant (her friend at one point refers to her former “old lady period”). She’s trying identities on for size, but not realizing how her experimentation has to go deeper (her helmet-like black hair and heavy-framed glasses seem like a perpetual armor). In one scene she rants against “extroverted” types; in the next scene, she’s enjoying a radio DJ (extroverted, of course) that her companion yells at for being unbearably shrill. In school you can maintain arbitrary self-definitions because it’s sheltered and your little subgroup’s in it together; step out into more open territory and things quickly start to break down.

Psychic territory

Birch meets a dorky middle-aged old-record enthusiast (played by Steve Buscemi, in a performance that should conclusively dispel his ratbag image) who grows on her. He impresses her by virtue of his difference, even if the way in which he’s different doesn’t have much in common with the way in which she is. Their relationship is very sweetly portrayed; neither fully understands whether the territory they share is superficial or deep, and by the time they think to ask, it’s probably too late. When they sleep together, it carries absolutely no Lolita-type subtext – itself a sign of how well the film avoids the norm. Sometimes, as in the scenes involving a pretentious art teacher played by Ileanna Douglas, Ghost World does take easier paths, but since those scenes are consistently among the film’s funniest, it doesn’t seem to matter too much.

The film has a fanciful ending, in that it manages to avoid compromise and to allow Birch to retain most of her psychic territory. It’s also the only time that the film seems to take the supernatural undertones of its title too literally. But that hardly matters either. Ghost World lasts 111 minutes, and yields at least 109 minutes of satisfying movie watching – a ratio directly opposite to the other pictures I mentioned.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Too much heaven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams dies in a car crash and ascends to heaven, while his grieving wife kills herself and gets sent to hell (mandatory for suicides – them’s the rules). Williams bravely sets out across the divide, to find her and bring her to join him in Paradise (rules aside, getting into heaven’s apparently largely a matter of who you know). As I often like to say, place your bets now on whether he makes it or not. But I was well-primed to identify with Williams’ quest, because I recently had to search for my own wife, on a Saturday afternoon in the Eaton Centre. Oh God, the crush, the airless horror of it all. I was sure I was condemned. But I found her, and somehow we escaped, maybe not with our souls intact, but with most of our money.

My lost soul

A facetious response to a crucial spiritual concept, you say? Perhaps that’s right. I am, quite certainly, a bit of a spiritual wasteland. I’m happy to admit ignorance of all the big questions, but also to admit a blithe disregard for them. Whenever I go to the zoo, I’m struck by the inadequacy of evolution as an explanation for such strange, weird beauty, but I lack the faith to believe in a single Creator. So I just amble along, presuming I know nothing.

In much the same way, I tend to shy away from any talk of “vision” or “soul” or any of that intangible inspirational stuff. My ideal image of myself, I suppose, would be as an easygoing pragmatist. I just like to get things done, in my own way, with the minimum bother to myself or to others. I’m amiable, I think, but not at all touchy-feely – actually I don’t much like to touch anyone at all except my wife (who must apparently have been on good form this week to deserve all these mentions), and I’d rather reserve all sentiment for the same recipient. As you can see, I don’t mind talking about myself to some extent, but the more superficial the better.

I’ve set all this out as a comprehensive acknowledgement that I’m not the ideal viewer for What Dreams May Come. It’s not that I couldn’t warm to the setting of heaven and hell, if there were some point to it – surrealism, or allegory, or whatever. In fact, one of my favourite films, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, moves deliciously between this world and the next. In Orphee, it’s really the weird specificity that’s so compelling – the juxtaposition of outlandish mythology (mysterious messages received on a car radio; mirrors that act as portals to hell) with moments of rustic comedy or mundane potboiler. The spirit world’s emissaries zoom around on motorcycles; the angel Heurtebise hangs around the house in an open-necked shirt. Orphee consistently evokes the strangeness of the creative muse in a way that’s still fresh and alluring.


In What Dreams May Come the only point seems to be size (it’s the Godzilla of sappy couple movies). With all the kindness I can muster, I can’t see the relationship between Williams (in one of his distinctly dull modes here) and his wife (played, sort of, by Annabella Sciorra) as more than a self-important, patently fake Hollywood invention. It’s all puffed-up talk, ponderous looks and confessions, enacted in one dreary flashback after another. Despite all the wet dialogue about their rare status as true boundary-crossing “soulmates,” the film conspicuously fails to evoke mutual delight, scintillating rapport, or any of the qualities that might send a man more than, oh, a few blocks in search of a missing spouse. It’s rather grotesque to elevate the attempted reunification of this mediocre pair to the level of Most Momentous Love Story in the History of Creation. If it were Bogart laconically trekking through a maelstrom of evil in search of Bacall, I might have considered it.

Be warned too that Williams’ journey, after all the build-up, isn’t actually that onerous. One might have thought that penetrating Satan’s empire would entail enough resistance to require, at the very least, the assistance of a Bruce Willis, but it turns out to be primarily a matter of achieving a state of mind that transcends all obstacles. This is convenient for the filmmakers, of course, because if there are no objective rules or limitations on their chosen universe, they can make any narrative leaps they like, at any point, without worrying about the normal stumbling blocks of causation and plausibility. The strange result is that it’s apparently far easier to engineer the meeting of lovers across heaven and hell than to pull off the same thing in, say, Boston (the setting of the current Next Stop Wonderland).

Chicken Soup for the Vegetarian

I should acknowledge that the film has another selling point – its computer-generated depictions of the next life. When Williams wakes up in heaven, his surroundings have the consistency of paint; they threaten to melt away as he touches them. It’s a beautiful depiction of his fantasies and dreams made real, still fragile in their newness. The film’s concept of hell is a bit more generic, but still undoubtedly unappealing (although a film less concerned about the family audience might have turned up the evidence of pain and suffering a bit, or might at least have trotted out a few more lawyers and accountants). Some critics think the movie’s visual qualities compensate for any weaknesses in the storytelling. My own view on that: if a story’s not worth telling, it’s not worth telling beautifully.

What Dreams May Come is one of the year’s most pretentious movies, somewhat laughable in its hunger for grandeur. But as I said, I’m not the spiritual type. The only one of those inspirational “Chicken Soup” books I might consider buying would be “Chicken Soup for the Chicken” (in the hope of bleak cannibalistic irony). Still, despite my distinctly earthbound soul, I’m lucky enough to know a little bit about love (there’s that woman again) and this film failed that basic test of recognition. I would have forgiven it all its missteps in depicting the big celestial canvas, if it were only truer in capturing the small intimate one.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

2003 Toronto Film Festival Report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2003)

L’histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette)
77-year-old Rivette is one of my all-time favourite directors. His films have a choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. The new film, once again, is uniquely his. It commences as a (to be honest, not overly engaging) study of a relationship, focusing on Julien as he tries to rekindle a past relationship with the enigmatic Marie. It slowly transforms itself into a supernatural reverie.

Julien is a repairer of old clocks, living alone with his cat; he’s also a blackmailer – an exploiter of secrets – and while I detected a certain fairy-tale-like element early on, I thought the model might be one of those stories where the princess ends up imprisoned in the tower. But Rivette starts to invest the movie with sex scenes that (although mild by contemporary standards) are more vivid than we’re used to from him, and as they make love, the two create fantastic narratives, redefining their relationship. Around this time, the film’s logic becomes gradually more dream-like, with Marie holding the key – at one point, she admits that she doesn’t know how the (highly arbitrary-seeming) rules actually work – she only knows what they are. And later there’s a secret sign that utterly transforms reality.

This is highly reminiscent of the magic candy that triggers the other world in Celine and Julie Go Boating, and there’s no doubt that Marie et Julien will be most rewarding for a Rivette fan. If you’ve accustomed yourself to his particular kind of enigmatic elegance, you could watch it forever. It’s almost as if he’s working through the genres in late career – Secret Defense was a thriller, Haut bas fragile was a musical – and the films all possess an elemental joy at the explorations he’s undertaken. Like Celine and Julie, the new film seems like a pure creation of cinema – someone refers to Marie, in her past, as a “prisoner of the image she cast for others,” and Rivette’s films, with their labyrinthine implications, always provide the sense of a creative process that’s invested to an unusual extent in the viewer. And the film demonstrates his profound affinity for femininity. It has chapter headings that explicitly identify the shift from the real to the supernatural with a shifting focus from the man to the woman. Emmanuelle Beart (who starred in his La belle noisseuse) is the perfect Rivette heroine – beautiful, not glacial like Catherine Deneuve, but leaving no doubt that our understanding of her stretches only so far.

This is obviously a review written by a fan, so I hesitate to say that Histoire de Marie et Julien is the best film I saw at the festival. I guess I should just say it’s my favourite.

The Event (Thom Fitzgerald)
Fitzgerald burst on the scene with the acclaimed Hanging Garden in 1997, since when his reputation has stagnated. This year’s The Wild Dogs, a scrapbook of odds and ends about a Canadian pornographer in Budapest, received virtually no attention at all, but it was the first of his films to persuade me he might have staying power. Reminiscent at various times of Kusturica, Fellini, Egoyan and Loach, it can be faulted in so many different ways I don’t know where to start. But the raw elements are fascinating, and the movie ultimately comes to resemble a troubled, rough-edged sculpture where the personal and the political fuse into a semi-recognizable dream landscape.

The Event, which has already opened commercially, seems like an equally personal project, about a man who’s died of AIDS, and the assistant DA who suspects it was an assisted suicide; her investigation focuses on the blow-out party that occupied his last evening. The film was reportedly meant to shoot in Toronto, and then moved to New York after the funding fell through – maybe this accounts for a cast that bizarrely combines Canadian stalwarts like Don McKellar and Sarah Polley with Olympia Dukakis (as McKellar and Polley’s mother!) and Parker Posey. This somehow sums up the film’s oddly dislocated quality. Compared to The Wild Dogs, it’s a fairly concentrated story, and it runs nearly two hours, yet everything about it seems to be given short shrift: characters, locations, themes all fail to register, with much time spent on barely meaningful vignettes and digressions. And sadly, the film (set in 2001, although it feels like earlier) doesn’t provide much valuable perspective on AIDS and its consequences either. If The Wild Dogs gave you the sense of a director running himself ragged, The Event seems like its exhausted aftermath.

Out of Time (Carl Franklin)
Franklin’s thriller, with Denzel Washington making another festival appearance, has also already opened commercially. The program book sells the movie valiantly, referring to “refreshingly rich characterizations,” “emotional investment from the audience,” and “phenomenal flair.” Well, it just looked like a serviceable suspense piece to me. Washington plays a small-town police chief who bends the rules to help his girlfriend, and then finds himself framed for murder; he works frantically from within to impede the official investigation, while tracking the real crooks on the side. For added refreshing richness: the detective in charge of the investigation is his estranged wife! The movie opens in lush, languid mode, and then cranks up the pace; Washington’s manipulations are highly entertaining, but then the film resorts to a hackneyed and fake-looking struggle on a rapidly collapsing balcony, and after that it goes through the motions.

I spent much of the movie musing on Washington’s star image. He’s regarded both as a bona fide sex symbol and a great actor, but his filmography contains a disproportionate amount of low-wattage action filler (The Siege, The Bone Collector, Fallen, Virtuosity, now Out of Time), as though he feared his vaunted coolness left him with something to prove. And yet, he doesn’t invest the roles with the relish that might help make the case. Too me, he walks through these movies, seldom seeming engaged or perturbed; in Out of Time, even at the height of the crisis, he barely breaks a sweat. But he seems immune to conventional assessment. The two women he romances in the new film (Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan) are 20 and 17 years his junior respectively, but no one’s been making the conventional observations about how Hollywood privileges the older male – it just seems like the natural order, Denzel-wise. As Out of Time becomes increasingly abstract and detached from plausibility, as virtually all thrillers do. Washington’s remove takes on the contours of a philosophical challenge. Albeit a challenge considerably less bracing than that of the Rivette film.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Missing persons

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

In 1980, the revised edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema had an entry for Henrik Galeen, co-director of the 1914 version of Der Golem, that made a strange impression on me as a kid and sticks in my mind even now. It starts out:

  • As this is written, Galeen must be ninety-one – if he lives. Apparently in 1933, Galeen left Germany for America, though his last recorded film Salon Dora Green has German actors and a German title. No other information is available.
At the time I was just getting into movies, and into life in general, and I think it struck me as remarkable, stuck as I was in my mundane circumstances, that someone could simply vanish, while yet leaving enough of a footprint to earn a place in the reference books. In a certain way it seemed to encapsulate the romance of the movies themselves – ethereal, yet indelible. I certainly imagined, as Thomson seemed to, that Galeen was still alive, lurking in some benevolent shadow, frail but still plotting his comeback, no doubt chuckling at the mystery he’d left behind.

Finding Henrik

The Galeen entry vanished from the next edition of Thomson’s book. Perhaps the memory of him had finally become too frail. But when I thought of this again the other day, I looked him up on the Internet Movie Database. And there I found, rather to my amazement, the following:

  • Date of death (details) 30 July 1949 Randolph, Orange County, Vermont, U.S.A. (cancer)
There’s no more information (except the tantalizing bit that his spouse for the last two years of his life was called Comptess Ilse von Schenk), but there’s no reason to disbelieve it. Other than, that is, simple refusal to accept such a lame substitute for the myth woven by Thomson. I think it’s the parenthesis around “cancer” that really kills the magic, like something lifted from a drab medical report. Which may of course have been the source of the information.

Intrigued by this, I searched for Galeen on Google and came across, which gave Galeen’s year of death as 1940, and provided a link with the intriguing prospect: “Search his grave.” This supposedly led to a site called, which hasn’t worked for me the several times I’ve tried it. Another site, The Missing Link, gave the 1949 date, as did the German film institute site and a few others. But who’s to tell that all these apparently corroborating sites aren’t merely picking data off each other, spinning out the same piece of misinformation.

That’s about as far as Google took me, but I almost wish I were fascinated enough to launch my own investigation, which I like to imagine would spiral off as things do in movies into an unimaginable web of secrets and skeletons. I’m not quite that intrigued though, no doubt in part because I’ve never actually seen any of Galeen’s movies. Of course, it may be that never was much of a mystery, and that Thomson, writing in the pre-Internet age, simply didn’t have the resources (or the application) to track down a piece of not-particularly-obscure information. But if so, it’s easy to see why he didn’t search for as long as he could have: if the romance fits, who needs the facts?

Other mysteries

Cinema, generally a prohibitively expensive art form where deal making counts for at least as much as artistic vision, seems particularly suited to such missing person stories. A few strokes of bad luck and you might never get up there again. A recent Variety article pointed out “dozens of…examples over the past 20 years of Sundance award-winning films that never find distribution and hot new directors who never make another film.” Matty Rich won a prize in 1991 for his debut Straight out of Brooklyn, made one more (flop) film, and hasn’t directed another movie. Leslie Harris won an award in 1993 for Just Another Girl on the IRT and hasn’t been heard from since. And so on.

It’s not just directors. Just to take a few random examples from hundreds available. Andy and Dave Lewis wrote the fine script for Klute in 1971 and won an Oscar nomination. The Internet Movie Database lists one more credit for each in the following few years – since then nothing. Kitty Winn won the best actress prize at Cannes in 1971 for Panic in Needle Park, then appeared in The Exorcist and its first sequel. Since 1978, nothing. In part I wonder about the economics. The movies pay well, but I don’t see how someone retires on the back of the Klute screenplay. Could someone go from Sundance stardom to McDonalds? Absolutely. But you just plain wonder how they can stand it.

But maybe I’m letting my taste for the magic of cinema get the better of me there. Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” dictum is cited often enough that it obviously makes some sense to most of us. People can win a dream vacation, enjoy the hell out of it, then go back to their lives without any adverse effort. Why should making a movie be any different? Sure, some child stars never adjust to adulthood and to the loss of the spotlight, but it seems that the greater number just get on with things.

Comptess Ilse

Which might have made for a happy last decade for Henrik Galeen, out there in Vermont. But there’s a major problem with any attempt to convince oneself he opened a corner store or became a mail carrier – namely Comptess Ilse von Schenk. According to the IMDB he married her in 1948. It doesn’t seem likely that Galeen met someone with that kind of moniker just hanging out around Randolph, Vermont, although of course it’s possible. Maybe she was another refugee from fame (or from the Nazis), who followed the same random currents to New England, one day their eyes met at the corner store, they each recognized a kindred spirit, and that was that. Maybe she was a childhood friend, or an old flame from the wild parties in his film-making heyday. Maybe her real name was something like Adelaide Frump, and she changed it because she sensed the history books (or history websites) would demand her husband pair off with someone more exotic. She must be well over a hundred, if she lives. But no other information is available.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ozu to Oz

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Reasons why we love the Cinematheque Ontario, Number 2,456: the recent Yasujiro Ozu retrospective. Only a few of Ozu’s films are generally available (only two are on DVD), but the Cinematheque had around forty, many of them revelations. Some of them are pure genre pieces, melodramas made under considerable constraints, but even the simplest has a poise and sophistication that’s startlingly modern (one of the series’ great revelations is that 1930’s Japan, at least as depicted in those movies, seems more westernized than the country does now).

William O’Meara

Some of the Ozu movies were silent, with live piano accompaniment by a man called William O’Meara. I’ve seen O’Meara at the Cinematheque many times over the years, and I’ve always been amazed by him. He always generates a wonderfully well-judged score, always perfectly attuned and synchronized to what’s on screen. I don’t know how much preparation he does for each film, if any, but you could have imagined each one was a major undertaking.

He doesn’t overdo it though. Silent movies aren’t necessarily corny, of course, but at the very least they use a slightly heightened mode of expression (sometimes much more than slightly heightened). O’Meara makes his scores a little more melodically obvious than a contemporary movie would ever allow, and as such echoes the visual idiom quite perfectly. According to a biography I found on the internet, he’s an accomplished classical musician who’s performed all over North America, in Brazil, Poland, Italy and elsewhere, as well as frequently on CBC Radio and NPR. We’re immensely lucky that he makes himself available to the Cinematheque.

At the same time as the Ozu season, the Cinematheque had a season of films by Vincente Minnelli. I love Minnelli’s movies, particularly The Band Wagon, which I’ve written about here in the past. I couldn’t make it to the Cinematheque to any of those films, and especially regretted missing the rare chance to see The Cobweb again – it’s an intense drama, set in a mental hospital, of which I retain the most fascinating (now 20 year old) memories.

Anyway, I partly compensated by watching Singin’ in the Rain again on TV. It’s a classic film of course, containing the iconic image of Gene Kelly performing the title song, Donald O’Connor knocking himself out on “Make ‘em Laugh,” and at least five other knock-out musical numbers. Unlike popular classics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain (co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen) is a bona fide critical classic as well, placing tenth in the most recent Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the best movies ever made.

I’m Happy Again

In addition to everything else, it’s one of the most memorable depictions of how sound rocked Hollywood, going in a few months from a gimmick that no one thought would last to a revelation that made some careers but killed off many more. In Singin’ in the Rain, this is indelibly embodied in the character played by Jean Hagen, who looks like Jean Harlow but sounds more like Fran Drescher. The Debbie Reynolds character, sublimating her own career, provides Hagen with a more suitable voice, until the truth is revealed at the end, with an insouciance that my wife, watching the movie with me, found rather nasty.

Actually, Gene Kelly seems to me an inherently cold personality all round, with an expression that too often creeps a little too close to a sneer, and a way with the romantic bantering that verges on bullying. It’s odd that although Kelly and Fred Astaire are the two screen legends of dance, they share a distinct frostiness; Astaire’s way with his female co-stars often just drips disdain. It’s as if their mastery of the form, over their own feet and more subtly of their comportment within the frame, imposed a distance that could only be mitigated, never conquered.

That said, Singin’ in the Rain has amazing joie de vivre, and there’s something almost eerie about so much iconic exuberance coming at you in scene after scene. The theme about the transition from silent to sound, in particular the way they patch over the aesthetic deficiencies of a doomed film by turning it into a musical, seems somehow to embody the very essence of the genre. There’s no other kind of film that strikes such a relationship between the vividly emotional and the wantonly abstract, and perhaps no musical that exploits that odd displacement with such wicked charm.

Sometimes the songs in Singin’ in the Rain are part of the action; sometimes they belong to the “real” world of the film; sometimes, as in the “Moses Supposes” number, they seem to deconstruct the “real” world, to eat away at it until it disintegrates into gibberish – but gibberish you can dance to. It’s a dizzying fantasy of imagining and living out, from Kelly’s monologue at the start where he lies about his “dignified” past history while we see the much less rarified truth on the screen, to the end where a star’s voice turns out to belong to someone else.

Off to see the wizard

A few days after that, with my appetite for classic musicals now whetted again, I watched The Wizard of Oz (it played at 1 am on Bravo, which seems in some way like a sign of a pretty cool station). Unlike Donen and Kelly’s film, this doesn’t actually seem very well-directed to me. Much of the action is staged any old way and it has a herky-jerky quality throughout. But you can certainly see why the movie’s sometimes interpreted as a big acid trip – the intensity of Dorothy’s reimagining of normal life seems way beyond mere childish dreams.

Still, it’s one of the happiest of movie accidents. Everything about it – Judy Garland’s odd girl-woman performance (it struck me at several points that Dorothy could be read as being a bit stunted), the peculiarly elemental nature of her friends’ deficiencies, the vividness of its mythology (the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers) – somehow coheres. Although by now it’s impossible to know what one reacts to in the film itself and what you’re absorbing from the popular culture.

The title of this article, of course, is a gimmick – there’s no reason why Ozu and The Wizard of Oz would be in the same article. Except that I did indeed see both in the same week. I watch such a mixed bag of movies that I end up with these wacky juxtapositions all the time (in the last few days, as I write, I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon). But no matter how often, it always strikes me as a small miracle.