Friday, December 27, 2019

Short Take: Grey Gardens

(1975) Directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer: Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Edith Beale, Brooks Hyers, Jack Helmuth, Lois Wright; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I think that the film is kind of a Rorschach test, where it taps on the various abilities and disabilities of half of the audience – the ability to accept unconventionality, for example. Not everybody has that. But if you have it, then you’re more likely to very strongly connect with the film, and if you have a low tolerance for people who are different, then you might get embarrassed for these women…” – Albert Maysles (from 2001 Criterion DVD commentary)

A good documentary can transport you to a different place, providing an unprecedented glimpse into worlds we seldom see. Some provide journeys to exotic locations, while others delve into the superficially mundane, uncovering hidden surprises. Grey Gardens immerses us in the daily life of two eccentric individuals who originated from a position of great wealth and influence, and now exist in the tattered remains of their past glory.

The film opens with a brief primer (through a montage of newspaper articles) on the East Hampton, New York Beale estate, known popularly as Grey Gardens. The residents, elderly Edith Bouvier Beale (Jacqueline Onassis’ aunt) and her middle-aged daughter Edie (“Little Edie”), were nearly evicted, due to Grey Gardens’ advanced squalor. Filmmakers David and Albert Maysles set their sights on the two women, who enjoy a symbiotic, albeit occasionally adversarial relationship. The former socialites occupy only a couple of spots in their dilapidated 28-room mansion, along with a menagerie of cats and woodland creatures that pop in and out. The once-elegant home is an island, adrift in a sea of dense, overgrown foliage. Shots pan around to reveal the neighbors’ pristine homes, with their manicured grounds.

The filmmakers underscore the peculiar relationship between mother and daughter, and their push-pull power dynamic. Little Edie is full of contrasts and contradictions, at once yearning to break free from Grey Gardens, yet loyal to her domineering mother. She expresses a lifetime of regret and bitterness over dreams that weren’t followed, but seems content to live in a state of arrested development (In a moment of self-reflection, she observes, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? Awful difficult.”). At times, she regresses to an earlier age, reacting to her mother’s frequent barbs like a petulant child, instead of a 56-year-old woman. In one of the most memorable scenes, Little Edie dances (in a moment she staged herself), in one of her many scarf ensembles,* with a small American flag, demonstrating a level of youthful exuberance that belies her age. She lives in a world of endless beauty pageants, debutante balls, and still fashions herself as the most eligible bachelorette in East Hampton (“I see myself as a young girl.”). “Big” Edith has a similar moment in the spotlight in an earlier scene, when she sings “Tea for Two,” accompanied by her recording from several decades past.

*Fun Fact: According to co-director/co-editor Ellen Hovdie, Little Edie always appeared in a head scarf, with a new ensemble every day. Much to their chagrin, the filmmakers never learned if she was hiding something, or just wanted to make a fashion statement.

Because this isn’t a success story, but rather a study of former glory gone to seed, it’s easy to get the impression that Grey Gardens would be a depressing viewing experience. The movie received a mixed reception at the time of its release, with some accusing the Maysles of exploiting the Beales. However, as the commentary by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer attests, Edith and Little Edie were quite self-aware of their image, and complicit in how they chose to be portrayed. The film’s critics seemed to miss the point. Grey Gardens doesn’t ask us to condone the Beales’ lifestyle, only to see things from a different (hopefully sympathetic) point of view. Despite a mixed reception during its initial release, Grey Gardens captured the imagination of others over the years, with midnight screenings, a Broadway musical, and a TV movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the elder and junior Beale, respectively. At its core, the film is a celebration of two people pursuing life on their own terms. Whether you love them or hate them, or are somewhere in between, their story is difficult to forget.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dreams with Sharp Teeth

(2008) Written and directed by Erik Nelson; Starring: Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Carol Cooper, Ronald D. Moore, Carol Cooper, Dan Simmons, Josh Olson, Susan Anne Toth; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of different ways: A lot of people get surly, a lot of people get mean, some people turn into serial killers. I got so smart that I could just kill ‘em with logic or their own mouths.” – Harlan Ellison

Even if you’ve never read a story from the late great author Harlan Ellison, you’ve probably experienced his impact on film and television. He left an indelible mark on genre television, having penned some of the greatest episodes of the 1960s: “The City on the Edge of Forever” for Star Trek, and “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” for The Outer Limits. His novella “A Boy and His Dog” was adapted for the excellent 1975 movie. He also made numerous talk show appearances, where his candor and venomous wit was on display. In his documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson presents an unsentimental but oddly affectionate profile of Ellison and his career.

The film opens with Ellison’s friend and admirer, Robin Williams, doing a fact check with the writer about some of his more infamous exploits. Ellison confirmed that he once mailed a dead gopher to a publishing house, attacked an ABC TV executive,* drove a truck with nitroglycerine as the cargo, and claims to have had sex with 500 women (Ellison corrected it to 700). On the other hand, he vehemently denied throwing a fan down an elevator shaft. Aside from these hyperbolic feats, his litany of exploits (real and imaginary) illustrates how much Harlan Ellison the personality is synonymous with Harlan Ellison the writer.

* Interesting Fact: Ellison recounted how he assaulted an ABC TV executive for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in producer Irwin Allen’s office. In a moment of anger, Ellison threw a punch, causing the object of his ire to fall backward. This action in turn caused the Seaview submarine model to fall off the wall and onto the hapless executive, fracturing his pelvis.

It can be notoriously difficult for a movie to adequately convey what makes an artist or writer’s work great. Nelson does his best, featuring interviews with friends and admirers (including Neil Gaiman, Josh Olson, and others), but describing Ellison is a bit like the proverb of the blind men and the elephant – we learn about the parts, without getting a clear picture of the whole. As a result, it’s not too surprising that the best composite of Ellison is from the author himself. You could set the camera down anywhere, step away, and let Harlan Ellison do his thing, which is essentially what you see Nelson do. We get a taste for his inimitable prose style as he reads excerpts from some of his most popular stories and essays, such as his animated recital of one of his most famous short stories, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Ellison traces his childhood days growing up in a small town in Ohio, where he was mercilessly bullied and beaten up by classmates on a regular basis.* In one particularly revelatory scene, he confides how he couldn’t stand being made fun of. It’s easy to connect the dots, to see how his formative years shaped the rest of his life, and his interactions (positive and negative) with all who crossed his path. At its core, Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a profile of a man with strong convictions who’s burned many bridges along the way and would gladly burn them again, if given the chance. As the film argues, however, his irritation isn’t without purpose. He’s fiercely passionate about his craft,** and can’t abide not being adequately compensated for his work. He’s perpetually irked at everything, ready to zero in on his targets like a smart bomb. Some of the objects/individuals he mercilessly skewers include: companies that want something for nothing, the willfully illiterate, television, fans and fandom in general, ignorance and individuals who believe they have a right to an opinion (“I've got news for you, schmuck! You’re entitled to your informed opinion.”).

* Fun Fact #1: Ellison got his revenge over the years by incorporating the names of his childhood bullies in stories.

** Fun Fact #2: A quote on his trusty Olympia typewriter (he keeps several spares in a nook in his home) by musician P.J. Proby, states: “I am an artist, and should be exempt from shit.”

If there’s one quibble with Dreams with Sharp Teeth, it’s that the documentary lapses a little too much into unchecked adoration of its subject, leaving the profile of Ellison a trifle one-sided. Although we hear from his wife Susan (married until his death in 2018), we never hear from any of his four ex-wives or those who were on the receiving end of his verbal (and sometimes) physical assaults.* The film also discusses how he presided over writers workshops, where he alternately championed writers he deemed to have promise, and discouraged those whose writing didn’t meet his standards. This begs the question, what now famous writers did he discourage? It would have been interesting to hear from some of them as well. To some, being rejected by Ellison might have been a dubious (if not devastating) badge of honor (or shame, depending on your point of view).

* Fun Fact #3: In one scene, he describes an incident at a convention, when he purposely urinated on an over-eager fan’s shoe, when asked a question in the restroom.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a complex, multi-faceted (albeit flawed) portrait of a precocious boy with a big mouth who never quite grew up. He’s a giant in his field who could have soared to even loftier heights, if not for his irascible demeanor and uncompromising ideals. But if Ellison comes off as curmudgeonly and acerbic, he would probably be the first to agree, and say that he wouldn’t have it any other way. His faults arguably made him the great writer he was, fearless, fiercely unapologetic and endlessly inventive. There has never been anyone quite like Harlan Ellison before, and we may never see his like again.  

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November Quick Picks and Pans

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) The wealthy and powerful Martha Ivers (now O’Neil) (Barbara Stanwyck) is married to meek district attorney hopeful Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas in his film debut). Both individuals harbor a dark secret about her past, which is brought to light when her childhood friend rolls into town. Van Heflin plays Sam Masterson, a man from the wrong side of the tracks with a shady agenda. Stanwyck presents a complex, morally ambiguous performance as Martha, who still holds a flame for Sam. Lizabeth Scott is also good as Toni Marachek, a young woman with a checkered past, who vies for Sam’s affections. Filled with intriguing characters and more twists than a mountain road, you’re never sure where it’s going until the final scene.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Criss Cross (1949) Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo star as Steve and Anna, formerly married, now locked in a risky affair. Despite warnings from his friends and family that she’s nothing but trouble, he keeps returning to Anna like a moth to a bug zapper. She’s now married to a dangerous crime boss Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who begins to suspect something isn’t right. In order to nullify Slim’s concerns, Steve agrees to participate in an armored car heist. Meanwhile, Steve and Anna plot to double-cross Slim so they can be together again. Criss Cross illustrates how the heart may want what it wants, but it’s liable to drive you to ruin.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Bone Tomahawk (2015) The debut feature from writer/director S. Craig Zahler plays like a mix of The Searchers with The Hills Have Eyes. Kurt Russell stars as Sheriff Hunt, who leads a small posse to rescue his deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and a young doctor, Samantha (Lili Simmons), from a band of cannibals. Zahler’s horror western is grim and gory, with moments of unexpected humor. Many of the lighter scenes can be attributed to Richard Jenkins as Chicory, Hunt’s eccentric second deputy with a postmodern sensibility and an unfortunate tendency to run off at the mouth. Bone Tomahawk is a disturbing, well-acted film that might not suit everyone’s taste, but it’s a refreshing departure from the expected.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Hangar 18 (1980) A decent cast and a wacky premise can’t save this dull conspiracy movie from seeming like a TV movie of the week with a slightly bigger budget. Space shuttle astronauts Steve Bancroft and Lew Price (Gary Collins and James Hampton) witness a fatal encounter with a UFO while they’re in orbit. Once they’re back on Earth, they’re pursued by feds (led by Robert Vaughn) that want to keep them quiet. While the chase is on, NASA official Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin, in an underwritten role) leads an elite team of scientists, who attempt to unlock the secrets of the captured alien spacecraft. Bad special effects, cheap looking sets and an uninspired UFO design elicit yawns rather than awe. It’s a shame the results are so lackluster. With the right filmmakers, this could have been fun.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD