Monday, April 30, 2012

Short Take: Steven Spielberg

Last week I had the fun experience of using the opening Omaha Beach sequence of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in my two World History classes. Oddly, none of the students had ever seen it before. The boys uniformly thought it was awesome, but a few of the girls couldn't take the gore and asked to excuse themselves. I found that rather gratifying, actually - it demonstrated the power of the scene, which to my mind is the greatest stretch of film-making that Spielberg has ever created. If it were someone other than him and Tom Hanks involved, the scene would have a far higher standing among cineastes. The shot of the bewildered soldier picking up his severed own arm and wandering off with it is worthy of Kurosawa, Bergman, or anyone else you might care to mention. I used a lot of video clips - documentary and fiction - in the year-long history course, but none better than this one at putting you inside the historical experience.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Short Take: Dante

I'm teaching Dante in my Art History/Literary History class, since we have arrived at the Middle Ages. I am using the Mark Musa translation of The Divine Comedy published by Penguin, which reads beautifully.

Dante was a fervent Christian believer, and that is putting it mildly. Dante firmly believed that all non-believers would go to hell and would suffer torments. He takes obvious relish in describing those torments. His theological position, the norm at the time, is so extreme that he believes that every human being who lived before Christ - including great benefactors of mankind such as Plato and Aristotle - went to hell because they did not accept Christ as their savior, even though there was no Christ in existence to accept yet. Tough luck, Greeks!

I do not share Dante's world-view - I reject it. He was deeply influential for centuries (and still). His influence undoubtedly had a pernicious side to it. And yet - he is one of the greatest writers who ever walked the planet, and there is nothing even mildly controversial about that view.

So what do I do? I deeply admire his artistry, reject most of his attitudes, and teach him in historical context. It seems to be a reasonable response to the complex of facts.

POSTSCRIPT: I mentioned to my students that for every thousand readers who tackle the Inferno, maybe one reads the Paradiso. People like the grotesque horror-movie side of Dante - boiling rivers of blood, sinners with their entrails hanging out, and suchlike.

POSTSCRIPT: This video response to the Inferno that I found on YouTube is strikingly well-done, with a killer soundtrack. My students certainly enjoyed it. There are a Purgatorio and Paradiso in the same series, which I have yet to watch.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Regarding the subject of the new documentary Bully, which I haven't seen yet, I have a classic story. Given what a nerd and a bookworm I was, I wasn't bullied that badly as a kid, and I held my own fairly well. But when I was a freshman at my my Catholic boys' prep school, there was this upperclassman, Bob P., who lived to bully and who did what he could to make me and my buddy Seth Cornwall miserable on the long school bus rides. Seth was an eccentric and rather delicate kid who had developed a passion for Russian Orthodoxy; he and I would have long talks about Czar Nicholas II and suchlike topics. (He later became a celebrated modern iconographer and, alas, died way too young.) The ungainly Bob P. would taunt us verbally, and sometimes physically by means of his henchman Richard B. I felt quite strongly that the two of them were sorry excuses for human beings, but I survived their attentions without any permanent damage, and had a pleasant moment on the last bus ride of freshman year when I dumped a large Coca-Cola all over Richard B. and his new pimpin' outfit (silk shirt open to the navel, tight polyester bell-bottoms - it was 1973).

Richard B. and Seth Cornwall both transferred to new schools after that year; I forget whether Bob P. graduated that year or the next.

Flash-forward to the Google Era, and one day while I was tooling around the Internet I thought, I wonder whatever happened to those guys? I couldn't make a definitive ID on Richard B. But Bob P. was easy enough to find; his family was still in New Jersey. And guess what? He was in prison! He and his brother, actually, both convicted of real estate fraud, quite a big scheme too. My expression of Schadenfreude was completely undignified and completely satisfying. "Yes!!" I leapt out of my chair. "There is a God!" Absolutely a moment I will never forget.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

African Film Noir

A South African production described as a "modern-day film noir," Charlie Vundla's How to Steal 2 Million, was featured at the recently completed New York African Film Festival:

How to Steal 2 Million. Charlie Vundla, 2011, South Africa, Digital; 90m

Five long years...that’s how long Jack spent in prison after getting pinched for robbery. His partner in crime and best friend, Twala, never got caught and Jack never talked. But Twala proved as treacherous as Jack is honourable by marrying Jack’s former fiancée during his prison term. Upon being released, Jack decides to go straight. He wants to start a construction business, but after being rejected for a loan he must find a new source of capital. An opportunity presents itself when Twala suggests they do a home invasion with a take worth two million South African Rand. The intended victim: Twala’s father, Julius. In his search for a third partner Jack comes across the tough, but sexy Olive. When the robbery goes wrong, secret double crosses are revealed and the tension builds towards an explosive, surprising finale in this dark and stylish modern-day film noir.

Other films shown at the Festival, such as Andy Amadi Okoroafor's Relentless, sound as if they possess potentially noir elements as well. The popular film industries of Africa, including Nigeria's "Nollywood" (which produces 1,000 to 2,000 video features per year), are said to often deal with crime and corruption, which are pressing issues in Africal life:

Most of the films are very cheaply made, undoubtedly quite rough, yet it could be fascinating to see how noir, which is nothing if not adaptable, transforms itself yet again in the context of an emergent continent with its share of troubles.

A bit of a real-life noir tale is playing itself out in the unresolved death last week of a very popular young Tanzanian actor, 28-year-old Steven Kanumba, who acted in Nollywood films:

Kanumba was a prolific actor, writer, and director in the young industry, as his Wikipedia entry attests, but such is the paucity of information available on Nollywood, the IMDB only knows two of his credits:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Noir of the Week - Romance de fieras (Mexico, 1955)

[Cross-posted from The Blackboard.]

Like many Mexican noir films, Ismael Rodriguez’s 1955 Romance de fieras (Savage Romance) is actually a romantic melodrama with noir shadings, akin to a Humoresque. But however one categorizes it, it’s a smashing film. It wastes absolutely no time getting started. Our youthful hero Javier Ponce (Joaquin Cordero), recently licensed as an attorney, is scanning newspaper want ads on a Mexico City sidewalk in front of a café, when suddenly, a shot rings out from within! Javier races inside to find industrialist Carlos Narvaez (Carlos Orellana) with a smoking gun in his hand, his best friend and fellow businessman Federico de Alba dead on the floor in front of him. “I need an attorney!” he cries – his own having fled the restaurant as soon as matters looked serious – and Javier is not only right there, but dressed as if to enter court that minute. In the space of a a few screen minutes, he has got himself a case, an acquittal on the grounds that the weapon was discharged accidentally, and a new surrogate father.

The father-son warmth between Narvaez and Ponce is complicated by the existence of Narvaez’s actual son Ricardo (Armando Calvo), a playboy ne’er-do-well who takes an immediate dislike to his rival as a mere middle-class arriviste. Javier holds his own in all their encounters, full of little verbal jabs back and forth. One of the several “character plots” of the movie is the ongoing cockfight between these two. Naturally we root for Javier, an orphan whose maiden aunts Milagros and Remedios (non-homicidal versions of the pair in Arsenic and Old Lace) put him through school and also raised his younger brother.

Joaquin Cordero was 33 when Romance de fieras was released, in the early stages of a very successful career as a leading man; he is still active in television and film today, one of the grand old men of Mexican cinema who will turn 90 this August 16. The best comparison I can think of for his particular blend of good looks and acting talent is William Holden (take that as very high praise).

Armando Calvo, who oozes insincerity and untrustworthiness in this movie, would also have a successful career, splitting his time between Mexico and Spain (where his father Juan Calvo was also a well-known actor).

Carlos Orellana was a triple threat as a character actor, writer (he co-wrote the Romance de fieras screenplay with Ismael Rodriguez, from Asuncion Aiza Banduni’s novel), and director.

The movie bounces back and forth between Mexico City and Javier Ponce’s home-town of Patzcuaro in Michoacan State on Mexico’s west coast. He has bought his dotty aunts a new house, and is keeping a hand in with the rearing of his teen-age brother. His re-appearance on the home-town scene as a tall, handsome, charming, successful, and single young attorney has all the local gals swooning, but none can compete with Patricia (Veronica Loyo), who is exceedingly pretty and knows it, and swoops in for the kill in record time. Although Veronica Loyo faded from the film scene in the Sixties, she nails all of her scenes here, in what has to be one of the most likable portraits of an unabashed husband-hunter in film history. Her style is to announce her strategies up-front and then dare Javier to resist them; she’s adorable.

But there is a another type of romance besides her practical, let’s-get-down-to-business-and-start-planning-the-wedding manner, and naturally the movie must put up a darker, moodier, crazier – “savage” – love as Patricia’s competition. Her parents have rented out a palatial country estate that just happens to be in their property portfolio, to a mysterious young woman known – wouldn’t you guess? - as “La misteriosa” (Martha Roth). She lives there in semi-seclusion with several servants and a small pack of ferocious dogs, playing Chopin for hours on end as her tears wet the keyboard. The dogs tear an intruder to death early on, all in a week in the countryside apparently, because it isn’t mentioned again – but whenever the movie needs an air of threat, there they are snarling and straining at their chains. They will figure in the finale, of course.

It isn’t long before a curious Javier starts trespassing his way onto La misteriosa’s estate, despite being told by its mistress to desist. On his second visit, she goes to tear his hair out, and he pins her to the ground as blood trickles down his forehead. In an erotically charged series of close-ups he leans in for a forced kiss and perhaps more, but backs off immediately as his face tells us that, passion notwithstanding, he doesn’t really fancy himself a rapist. This intense minute is one of many places in the film where Ismael Rodriguez shows himself to be a director of force. Rodriguez abundantly demonstrates an individual visual style, both in that telling use of close-ups and in his very characteristic overhead or elevated camera positions.

Martha Roth, who was born in Italy and moved to Mexico as a young girl, is a striking presence, who has not merely the air of a Bronte heroine but of a Bronte sister; I’d cast her as Emily without a minute’s hesitation. She is not as conventionally beautiful as Veronica Loyo, but she is unquestionably “misteriosa,” and as with all the contrasts in the film, this one is played to the hilt. She is “maldita,” she tells Ponce – cursed, damned. Will she take him down with her? (Roth and Cordero are great together; this would not be their only co-starring movie.)

The alternation between the comic scenes with the aunts and pert, scheming Patricia, and the Gothicky romantic scenes with La misteriosa, is splendidly effective. One of the dramatic strategies of the film is that every time Patricia is getting somewhere with Javier, they are interrupted. After she serenades him in a moonlight scene on the bank of the famously romantic Lake Patzcuaro (shot on location), he leans in for his first kiss, but they are both startled by the sudden appearance of La misteriosa standing in the prow of a boat skimming by, seemingly practicing to be a masthead – it is laugh-out-loud funny. On the evening of their marriage negotiation, he makes a sudden startling discovery, and has to run off. On the evening of their actual wedding, he receives an urgent phone call, and has to run off. If Patricia believed in omens, she would see that the fates themselves are scheming against her

The movie has lots of plot, which all ties together. Senor Narvaez passes away while Javier is in Patzcuaro, but not before narrating a complex death-bed explanation of what really happened on the day he “killed” his best friend, and a set of instructions. Ricardo is disinherited by his father, and Javier has to find the new, gone-missing heir before Ricardo himself does. It is someone they both know, but Javier doesn’t realize this…

One of the joys of the second half of the movie is Javier’s teaming up with Senor Narvaez’s bespectacled plain-Jane secretary Magda (Emma Rodriguez) to carry out the dead man’s difficult instructions. Emma Rodriguez is an extremely capable comic actress, and her character is a delight, whether she is getting drunk for the first time at a night-club, or trying to handle her own ordinary-guy boyfriend (who is bound to get jealous of all the time she is spending with glamour-boy Javier), or offering Javier some brass-tacks romantic advice when he goes on a despairing bender himself.

The last half-hour of the film juggles so many different tones – comic detective work, surprise appearances of various kinds, family melodrama involving Javier’s kid brother, mucho talk of “destiny,” and a completely over-the-top concluding sequence that plays like a cross between Hitchcock and Puccini, and that seems about to peak and end several times before those dogs inevitably show up. Do not go to Mexican cinema for mousy, temperate denouements; Ismael Rodriguez insists that you get your money’s-worth before leaving the theater. But he pulls it all off triumphantly, and still manages to shift back into comic mode for the concluding scene (as Hitch does in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). I’ll say it again: this is a smashing film.

A DVD with English subtitles that will play in both Region 1 (USA) and Region 4 (Mexico) DVD players is available readily and inexpensively though Amazon.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Friends of Frank Lovejoy Present: Radio Noir of the Week - The Blue Beetle

[Cross-posted from The Blackboard.]

The inceptions of the Golden Age of Superhero Comics (Action Comics #1, April 18, 1938) and the Golden Age of Film Noir (Stranger on the Third Floor, August 16, 1940) come fairly close in time, only two years apart. Although the two trends went their own ways, it is certainly possible to argue that they had common roots in popular reactions to the Great Depression of the 1930s – indeed, it would be harder to argue that they did not have that in common – and they would continue to have some points of contact, notably the 17 Superman cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios between 1941 and 1943, which are gorgeously noir in their look.

Technically speaking, there is a distinction to be made between true superheroes who possess superhuman powers, such as Superman and the Flash, and costumed crime fighters who have no actual superpowers but who do employ some fairly advanced proprietary technologies, such as Batman and Green Arrow. Costumed crime fighters have a slightly longer pedigree than superheroes, whose lineage effectively starts with Superman in 1938; earlier examples of costumed crime fighters include the Phantom, the Green Hornet, and the Clock, all debuting in 1936, and even they are pre-dated by Zorro (1919).

The original Blue Beetle, who first appeared just a few months after Batman in 1939, falls into the category of costumed crime fighters. (The Blue Beetle concept, like so many of these, has a long and complicated afterlife, with several incarnations of the character appearing in various comics universes right up until the present.) He was a Fox Comics property launched in Mystery Men Comics #1, and he continued to appear in that title, as well as a self-titled comic book up through 1950.

The Beetle begins as an ordinary rookie cop named Dan Garret(t) who, believing that desperate times call for desperate measures, undertakes to fight criminals in an extra-judicial way, first wearing just a mask, then donning a nifty bullet-proof costume made of chain-mesh “as flexible as silk, and stronger than steel.” He collaborates with local pharmacist Dr. Franz, who creates not only the costume but other enhancements as time goes along, including a mega-vitamin that starts to push the Beetle into superpowers territory.

The Blue Beetle character must have sold a lot of comic books, because fairly swiftly he got his own radio program, something which even Batman never did (although Superman scored one). It was short-lived, though, only broadcast for five months in the middle of 1940. The Blue Beetle ran as 15-minute segments, two of which made a whole story (unlike the more complex The Adventures of Superman radio series, which eventually ran stories of up to 33 15-minute episodes). There were 48 Blue Beetle episodes and 24 stories.

Every reference source I looked at indicated that our boy Frank Lovejoy played the Blue Beetle for the first 13 episodes, and was then replaced by an uncredited voice actor who has never been identified. Something about that seemed wrong: why would they change actors between episodes 13 and 14, which would fall in the middle of a two-part story? Fortunately, I was able to check this, since the majority of Blue Beetle segments, including #13-14, are available here:

My hunch was correct; Lovejoy was not replaced mid-story. He appears in #11-12 (“Death Rides on Horseback”), and the new actor takes over for #13-14 (“Death Strikes from the East”). The repetition of the error in different sources derives from the same simple fact that has always bedeviled encyclopedias: they are compiled mainly from other encyclopedias, not from original research. So once a non-obvious error appears, it circulates.

For the purposes of this Radio NOTW, I listened to #7-8, “Blasting the Dynamite Ring” (not “Blasting [the] Dynamite Gang,” as the reference sources have it).

A criminal gang headed by “the Octopus” is blowing up sites around Dan Garret’s unnamed city, leading Dan to comment to Dr. Franz: “I think it’s a diabolical plan of wholesale robbery, backed by terrorism and blackmail!...These men are desperate characters, and their chief is a cold-blooded fiend.”

Indeed, they will stop at nothing. Before we know it, they are demanding that the city shut down its electricity (the better for their looting), and threatening the widower mayor’s young son Tom, who does wind up being kidnapped. The mayor is quite naturally beside himself: “Now I must get back to my office and plan a campaign that will rid the city forever of this criminal scum!”

The Blue Beetle confronts the criminals, who, nonplussed that their bullets aren’t penetrating his chain-mail, just knock him out instead. He winds up imprisoned with plucky young Tom, who is excited as heck: “Me help the Blue Beetle! Gee!” Of course between them, they find a way to take the Octopus down. The climax illustrates one of the limitations of radio, which is that it can have a slightly hard time handling action sequences. So Tom has to report the action to us by talking to himself as the Blue Beetle out-swims the Octopus’s getaway motor-boat (neat trick). “Oh boy, can that Blue Beetle swim! Look at those strokes he takes!”

In the aftermath, Tom reminds the Beetle that as the rescuer of the mayor’s son, he’s in for a whopping big reward, which of course decent Dan gracefully declines: “The Blue Beetle seeks no reward, Tom. What he does, he does for humanity.” Instead, he’s off to his next adventure, to foil slot-machine racketeers who are preying on carnival-goers. The announcer solemnly asks, “Can the Blue Beetle protect amusement seekers against dishonest exploitation?” (Best of luck on that.)

It’s all quite a lot of juvenile fun, which ought to arouse nostalgic memories even for those of us who weren’t alive at the time! I particularly like the organ riffs for the scene transitions.

You can learn more about the Blue Beetle on these pages: