Friday, June 22, 2012

This Makes Me Sad

Until quite recently, Woody Allen's new movie To Rome with Love appeared in lists as Nero Fiddled; in his New York Times review, A.O. Scott mentions that Bop Decameron was also considered as a possible title. Both the earlier proposed titles are cute, suggestive, and eminently serviceable. Nero Fiddled indicates the Italian setting and its historical dimension, and hints that there may be some craziness or surreality. Bop Decameron also indicates the Italian setting and its historical dimension, conveys Woody Allen's love for jazz, and tells us that there will be multiple stories. So why the change to To Rome with Love, which Scott calls a "fairly generic" title but is actually worse than that, sounding like the name of an LP by a Sixties supper-club crooner like Jerry Vale?

It has to be marketing-driven, and I can just hear the marketers: "Woody, Vicky Cristina Barcelona did fairly well, and that had the name of the city; Midnight in Paris did very well, and that had the name of the city. You've got to tell Americans what city they're in!"

So we have reached the point where the references in the titles Nero Fiddled and Bop Decameron are considered too obscure, not just for Americans in general, but for the Americans who would consider going to a Woody Allen movie. Can cultural illiteracy go much lower than that? (Please don't answer that question.)

As a teacher of humanities, one of my primary goals is that my students will not be culturally illiterate if I can help it. Not all of them will cooperate with me on that, but I do try. I know that my friend Eric Levy, and many others, fight this good fight every day, as well. I don't want to live in a world where "educated people" don't know what educated people should know.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hannah and Her Sisters

Although I am and always have been a big Woody Allen fan, it is not because I like or would want to be part of the world that his films depict, but rather the opposite. I take a strong dislike to many of his characters, and invariably think that, if they are depictions of his real-life friends and family, well, better him than me. I should enjoy the culturedness of the core inhabitants of WoodyWorld, but since for a lot of them culture seems merely to be a high-class consumable, I sometimes wince rather than smile at the cultural references. Having grown up within the orbit of New York City (but having always been ambivalent about the place, too), I can confirm that there are plenty of real-life specimens that correspond to Allen’s characters - he’s not just making these people up – and that, unfortunately, they are often every bit as tediously egocentric and Manhattan-centric as they appear to be in the films.

I re-watched Hannah and Her Sisters remembering that it hadn’t been one of my favorite Allen efforts back in the Eighties, even though it is often judged to be among his top achievements. It seems to endorse the smugness and conventional-mindedness of its characters in a way that Allen at his best (Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors) avoids. I will admit that there is something potentially delicious in the conceit that there are only three women available for relationships in the entire world and that they are all members of the same family – however, since I find the sisters themselves unappealing, that doesn’t take me very far. In fact, I don’t think that there is a single character in the movie that is even borderline tolerable, and thus I find the machinations of the happy ending disappointing (because I want them all to die) as well as quite unbelievable.

One scene that is particularly bothersome is the date between Allen and Dianne Wiest, in which they shuttle from a punk-rock performance (her choice) to Bobby Short playing at a jazz club (his). The attempted satire at the expense of the punkers is ugly, ungenerous, and dripping with unearned superiority. One doesn’t expect Woody Allen to like punk rock, but one does expect him to realize that much of the art he does like was absolutely revolutionary and discomfort-provoking in its day. His reactionary stance not only fails to understand the new, but puts the wrong frame around the old and the retro, too, and so winds up being unproductive no matter how you look at it. A punk fan’s contempt for Bobby Short would be just as tiresome; surely one of the glories of Allen’s beloved Manhattan is that it can contain the energies of a thousand styles, as well as open-minded people who can enjoy many of them.

When Woody is operating at his more thoughtful, self-critique is built in, and such issues become interesting instead of annoying to think about. But self-critique – indeed, any critical stance with respect to his characters’ crises within the cocoon of privilege - is noticeably lacking from Hannah and Her Sisters, which makes me wonder why this film has been among his most acclaimed (as well as his biggest earner before Midnight in Paris).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

TV Noir of the Week: Shotgun Slade

[Cross-posted from The Blackboard.]

A genre hybrid such as Shotgun Slade can be fun simply because it exists as a specimen. In the late Fifties, the two hottest genres in television were private eye shoes and Westerns, and it was probably inevitable that someone would think of combining the two. And the novelist Frank Gruber, who worked in both genres, is precisely the sort of “someone” that would be! The character Slade, who never reveals a proper first name, is a wandering “detective for hire” who takes on a variety of assignments. He packs what is apparently – I’m no gun expert – an interesting piece, a combination “over/under” long gun that fires both rifle bullets and shotgun shells, therefore useful both at distance and in proximity. Like other detectives of the era, his surname puns on his potential lethality (Gunn, Hammer, “Slayed”). But as played by Scott Brady, Lawrence Tierney’s saner brother, Slade is quite affable, although naturally he knows how to handle himself. He also provides classic-style voiceover narration.

Not a network show, Shotgun Slade premiered in syndication one year after Peter Gunn jazzed up the TV landscape, and lasted two seasons. In its look, it’s very much your typical low-budgeted oater, but the producers cleverly albeit imitatively covered for that routineness by having composer Gerald Fried contribute a lightly jazzy Gunn-like theme and soundtrack music. The ploy works: it makes occasionally lumbering material into something more sprightly.

Scott Brady was 35 years old when Shotgun Slade premiered, and although he couldn’t have known it, the show pretty much marked the end of his career as a minor leading man. After this, it was mainly bottom-of-the-barrel Sixties product, back-up roles in biker flicks, that sort of thing. He was a drinking buddy of Archie Bunker’s in a few episodes of All in the Family.

The Shotgun Slade episode “Sudden Death” from late in its first season is a fair sample of the show:

There is quite a lot of plot for a half-hour, with seven characters besides Slade - most haunted by ghosts of past events - a murder investigation, crooked casino games, bar girls and violence against them, a vengeance stalking based on ethnic pride, a hysteric, a secret passageway, and several people who know how to throw an axe for maximum effect. Realistically, Slade does exactly the job he was hired to do and leaves all the rest for others to clean up, a nice change from the many screen detectives who take on all kinds of stuff that they are not getting paid for.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Hardy Boys in "The Melted Coins"

The plot of this Hardy Boys mystery is as complicated and difficult to summarize as Dickens's Little Dorrit, and like that great novel, lends itself readily to a Marxist interpretation, since everything in it revolves around the theme of money - old coins, rare coins, counterfeit coins, buried coins, stolen coins, hidden coins, and of course the melted coins of the title. Freudians could also have a fun time with such episodes as the revelation of Aunt Gertrude's (clearly fetishistic) secret, and the homoerotic scene in which a maniac sailor captures Joe Hardy and starts to tattoo him on the chest!

In fact, the latter bizarre quasi-rape scene is worth quoting at length. A 1944 children's book, remember.

...Blackbeard was strong and powerful. 

"I'll tattoo you if it's the last thing I do!..." 

...Joe tried to shout, but the pirate's heavy hand was across his mouth, stifling any outcry...In a few minutes he was bound, gagged, and thrust onto a table. 

"Get the needle, Lopez!" ordered Blackbeard. 

...The pirate, his heavy arms folded, looked at Joe with a satisfied air. Then he reached down and ripped open the boy's shirt. 

"Give me the needle, Lopez!" he shouted. 

Joe was utterly helpless, yet he struggled grimly against the ropes that bound him. Lopez stood by, handed Blackbeard a long, sharp needle in a holder. Joe felt a stab of pain as the tattoo artist crouched over him and the needle pricked the skin on his chest. 

"You'll get a design you maybe never heard of before," grunted Blackbeard. "First, I prick the design. Then comes the dye." 

The sharp needle stabbed Joe's skin once more....

"The mark will stay with you for life," cried the pirate.