Saturday, December 14, 2019

OLD JOY - #1008

There’s an audience review of Old Joy on IMDB with the headline, “Surprisingly not boring!”

While that partially puts my teeth on edge, since I tend to disdain a narrow-minded definition of narrative convention, I can see where such an exclamation can make sense here.

Kelly Riechardt’s 2006 film, co-written with regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond and based on his story, couldn’t be more lacking in plot. Old Joy is a film about two friends reconnecting--or at least trying to--potentially for the very last time. Daniel London plays Mark, a man in his late 20s/early 30s who is about to become a father. When his friend Curt (Will Oldham, a.k.a. musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) calls to invite him on a hike to a remote hot spring, Mark immediately feels a tug between his desires to be carefree with his old buddy and his forthcoming responsibilities. There is an immediate understanding that this will be the last time--even if Mark is desperate to never say so out loud to Curt.

Old Joy chronicles the two-day journey to the springs, including the first night when Curt’s memory seems to fail him and the pair--along with Mark’s dog Lucy (as also seen in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy [review]--camp out in a random location, unsure of how close or how far their destination may be. They drink and smoke under the stars and talk about string theory. Actually, Curt does most of the talking. He shares memories and dreams and genuinely tries to engage his pal in conversation. Mark, on the other hand, is practically endeavoring to stay disconnected. He says the right things and makes the right capitulations, but Curt knows every time Mark answers his cell phone to talk to his wife, he’s making excuses and apologizing for the time he is taking away from her. How far apart are these two, really? Listen to them order breakfast. Mark goes first, and Curt says he’ll have the same, only with a different meat choice and different toast. The same!

That’s about as contentious as Old Joy gets, though. There is no blow-up where the two men lay it all on the line and have a revelatory argument about freedom vs. responsibility. Rather, the whole of Old Joy hinges on one moment, a small gesture, that elevates the pair to what Curt was talking about at the campfire--their friendship moves to a different level with a wider view, allowing them to see clearly what is and what isn’t. A kind of peace is achieved, but it’s hard to say if it’s a lasting one--the final scenes suggest maybe not, but then again, Curt can be two things at once, connected and lost. Not that the next step matters, because something is released in the here and now. They find a spot to be comfortable in this melancholy. Curt explains this, too: “sorrow is worn-out joy.” What they feel passing may be sad, but it still has that initial seed of happiness inside of it.

And that’s it. There’s nothing more to Old Joy than that. Yet, it’s like the one commentator said, it’s never boring. On the contrary, Reichardt offers us lives so fully lived and so keenly observed, they are engrossing and nigh hypnotic. In a way, it’s the sheer unpredictability of a story with no a-b-c outcome that keeps you watching. There are no apparent curves on the road ahead.

It does help that Old Joy is also gorgeous to look at. It’s shot by Peter Sillen, who is mostly credited with documentaries, and his photography has that of-the-moment feel that a good documentary should have. He also has the backdrop of the forests of the Pacific Northwest to play with, which is a pretty good base canvas. The storytelling pace allows the audience to enjoy the nature as much as it allows us to indulge in the rite of passage the characters have embarked on, giving plenty to look at while we listen to the space between words.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, December 8, 2019


A salacious melodrama, The Story of Temple Drake is everything that made censors panic about Pre-Code Hollywood. Drinking, sex, murder, prostitution, rape--not to mention class divisions, challenges to authority, and a very, very minor touch of race relations (the servants are right, there is something wrong with their white bosses)--this William Faulkner adaptation scandalized timid theatre owners and frankly still has enough heat to feel a touch scandalous now.

Miriam Hopkins stars as Temple, the granddaughter of a rich Southern judge (Guy Standing, The Lives of Bengal Lancer), her only living family and a man too old to see just what kind to trouble Temple is getting into. The girl has a reputation, well earned if somewhat exaggerated. While Temple does go around with a lot of men, those in the know really know that she stops short of going all the way. She’s the local tease.

It doesn’t stop her from having her fair share of suitors, however. If one man besmirches her honor, another is there to defend it, and her dance card is always full. Her most serious contender would be Stephen (William Gargan, perhaps best known for playing detective Ellery Queen), a public defender with a penchant for lost causes. He numbers Temple among them. Despite her grandfather giving his blessing, she has refused Stephen’s proposal of marriage. Apparently he’s a bad dancer.

Though as Temple will find, there are worse things Stephen could be. After she ditches him at a party to go off with her besotted college beau (William Collier Jr., Little Caesar), a car crash leaves them stranded and at the mercy of a gangster named Trigger (Jack La Rue, The Sea Hawk). He’s been holing up at a farm waiting to pull a job with the backwoods hoods that own it. Temple’s presence turns up the heat at the farm, and despite the others’ best efforts to protect her, Trigger attacks Temple and leaves the headman (Irving Pichel, one of the director’s of The Most Dangerous Game) framed for murder.

The scenario gets pretty dark here, straying into moody gothic horror. Though Stephen Roberts, The Story of Temple Drake’s director, chooses to leave the sexual violence offscreen, there is no ambiguity to the situation. Trigger breaks Temple’s will and takes her prisoner, shacking up with her in a whorehouse while he waits for who knows what. The script by Oliver H.P. Garrett (A Farewell to Arms [review]) isn’t necessarily delicate or packed with nuance, but it leaves enough space so that Hopkins’ performance can be. She is incredible in the role, largely performing entirely with herself once Temple goes interior. As those around her marginalize her and turn away from her predicament, the rest of us do not, so we can see her process and react before she acts. The conflicted emotions, grappling with her own self-worth, weighing her options and ultimately trying to bury the trauma--Hopkins shows it all, usually through gesture and facial expression rather than verbal explanation.

It’s actually a surprisingly progressive portrayal of a victim’s psychology for 1933. Temple must wrestle with a lot of potential consequences were she to return home. To tell the town the truth after they had already written her off as a slut--would that help or hurt? A ticking clock is also added in that only Temple can corroborate what really happened at the farm, but to get the farmer off the hook, she’ll have to confess to her own shame and her own crimes. Here Stephen is also given a surprising lesson. The crusader would have Temple testify because it’s the right thing to do, but he balks when he realizes there are unintended damages to outing a victim. Gargan has an incredible moment where he must step back and make a decision.

The performances throughout The Story of Temple Drake are quite good. La Rue is menacing and tough, if a little one-note. More complex writing is reserved for the farmer’s wife (Florence Eldridge, Mary of Scotland), who is both frustrated by the sexual tension Temple introduces to her home but also instrumental in helping protect her. She has every reason to resent this woman of privilege invading her home, but she actually resents Trigger more. His bad influence and cruelty can only mean danger.

The segment in the woods is otherworldly. There are shadows around every corner, as fear grips Temple. She is completely isolated here, almost in a supernatural realm, a fairy tale landscape. This is where Faulkner shines through the most. His appreciation for the southern social strata lends a surprisingly non-judgmental air to the swampy scenes. The farmer and his kin are hard-working people, and subject to certain disadvantages. Trigger is the exploitative intruder from the North, and there is some compulsion to protect Temple not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but because she’s one of their own. By contrast, the stuff back in town is decidedly Hollywood, and one could make hay of The Story of Temple Drake being a parable of Tinsel Town’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Middle America.

The Story of Temple Drake is indicative of how censors so often miss the boat. Sure, there are sensational aspects to this story, but Roberts never sensationalizes them. Triggers is not a cool gangster, nor does the camera leer at Temple or even make us privy to the harm done her. Rather, the film relies on Hopkins’ to convey all the horror, her face saying more than seeing the actual violence could. Likewise, by never letting Stephen put a fine moral point on any of it, The Story of Temple Drake allows the audience to invest its own judgment, arguably making the “lesson” of the film all the more effective than the imposed “crime doesn’t pay” finales to come when Hollywood would eventually start policing itself.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, December 6, 2019


This review originally written for in 2007 as part of a film noir boxed set.

Fritz Lang practically invented showing the perils of a guilty conscience on film when he made M [review] in Germany fourteen years earlier; 1945's Scarlet Street continues this obsession with the evil that men do, casting Edward G. Robinson as the meek bank teller Christopher "Chris" Cross. This man's existence is a full-fledged illustration of the phrase "a life of quiet desperation." Married to a shrew of a wife who keeps a painting of her dead husband hanging up in their living room and doling out cash day in and day out while having none of his own, Chris' only solace is in the humble paintings he does in his spare time.

Then one night he happens upon a pimp (Dan Duryea, Black Angel) beating on his girl, Kitty (Joan Bennett, The Reckless Moment). Cross steps in, ingratiating himself to the girl and unwittingly getting pulled into a long con. She convinces him to set her up in an apartment where he can paint, and not wanting to tell her he's a nobody, he steals money to pay for it. She strings him along, eventually passing off his art as her own and sucking him deep into a tangled web of deceit that he can only see one way out of.

Lang and the main cast had first teamed up the year before in another classic noir, The Woman in the Window, and they clearly had something going together. Robinson is incredible as the shy and broken banker, showing great restraint and pathos. Duryea is a dirty lout that just oozes scum, and Joan Bennett is perhaps best of all, playing a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants but also showing how unsophisticated she really is. On her first night out with Cross, she orders a Rum Collins and drinks it with a straw, letting it dangle from her mouth as she talks. Cross is attracted to her as an old man looking at a woman whose childishness he mistakes for freedom.

The plot of Scarlet Street is full of twists, but it's also brimming with cynicism. In this bent love triangle, no one is innocent, and thus no one escapes punishment. Yet, even beyond the core characters, the people in Cross' life are no more innocent, taking full advantage of the man's nature, sometimes right out in the open, but also with tactics as underhanded as Kitty's. It's just that they have the approval of society to do it, and it's no wonder that a man would break when the world has made it okay to hold him down.

Sunday, December 1, 2019


Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 Three on a Match is a pre-Code delight, reveling in the sordid reputation of its recent past while channeling an American spirit perfect for the Depression-era, with its tales of reinvention, redemption, and altered fortunes.

The film follows a trio of women--popular stars Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis--who meet at elementary school in 1919 and whose lives become intertwined from that day on. Blondell plays Mary, the juvenile delinquent turned stage star, while Dvorak is Vivian, the popular girl who marries rich. In the middle is Ruth--Davis, sadly playing a nothing role--a workingwoman who sticks around for balance. Vivian grows bored of her life, while Mary envies the stability. Ultimately, the two swap as the former bad girl learns to make good and the once-promising lass sinks into alcohol and drugs. And Ruth? She becomes their nanny.

Three on a Match is both marvelously salacious and strangely conservative. One can’t help seeing the manhunt for Vivian’s kidnapped child and consider modern implications: he’s a rich kid, and thus worth finding. Though LeRoy builds much of the story on the reality of his times, he had a bit of unfortunate luck when the Lindberg kidnapping made Three on a Match seem far too current. The close proximity of the crime means there is no direct reference made, as otherwise we track the women through the years via newspapers and popular song, the montages catching us up on trends and even the criticism thereof. Three on a Match envelopes both Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Blondell and Dvorak get to have the most fun here, following opposite character arcs, and playing both good and bad. While young Mary is brassy and cool, the party girl that Vivian becomes is the absolute opposite. Dvorak plays her bored and wan, convincingly portraying the decay of an addict. It’s fun seeing a young Humphrey Bogart, playing a slick gangster, ridicule her and mimic her dope fiend twitch, saying everything that could be said without saying anything. On the opposite end, Mary drops all cynicism for good graces and positivity, but Blondell makes it work by keeping the character grounded. Mary never forgets where she came from.

The title Three on a Match comes from a superstitious saying, popularized in WWI, that if you keep a match lit long enough to light three cigarettes, the third person will die. This makes sense for etiquette in foxhole, but amusingly, the concept had already been exposed as matchmaker propaganda by the time of the film. No joke! A Swiss company was worried about losing money if smokers shared matches. LeRoy even references it in one of the history lessons. Yet, Three on a Match plays out the urban legend all the same. No spoiler as to who takes the final cigarette, but expect the unexpected...and the gruesome. So gruesome, it sort of outweighs the “happily ever after” sequence that closes out the film, but so we can expect from such tales. The lows always swing much wider than the highs, and the moral lessons never can quite shake the glitz of the bad deeds they decry.