Short Baseball Movies: Opening Day

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It doesn’t yet feel like Opening Day in Pennsylvania, since this is roughly the 45th of a forecast 60 straight days with a high in the mid-40s, but that’s what it is. Time to wing that ceremonial ball into the Allegheny and inspect the comic short Opening Day (Roy Rowland, 1938).

I saw a couple of Robert Benchley’s short films in my youth, but have always thought of him as a writer only. My parents had a trove of old humor collections, and Benchley was my favorite, aside of course from Dave Barry, the Benchley of his day. Thurber — too sad. S.J. Perelman — too cynical, and usually requires familiarity with the things he’s spoofing. Jean Kerr — hilarious, but at age 11 I didn’t identify with her struggles to keep up with other wealthy mothers in the early sixties. Erma Bombeck — kind of repetitive. Or as I now realize, extremely repetitive, though she made me hope strongly that the E.R.A. would be ratified soon. Clarence Day — too corny. Will Rogers — basically a bunch of obviously true statements, similar to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. E.F. Benson — hilarious and may have introduced me to the concept of the “unreliable narrator”.

Benchley — perfect. Why? Because of the silliness. The roundups of scientific findings are written in the kind of baffled style that suggested little of either intellectual ambition or anti-intellectualism. Parodies of The Good Earth, Wagnerian opera synopses, and travel writing about the childlike natives of Spain may not be spot-on like Perelman’s stuff, but they have endless randomness for the delight of all. The offhand names he comes up with for things stick with me. Minerals called “nergium” and “philutium”, a typical flower called “MacNerty’s Fields-Awash”, a bestselling book called “How to Decorate Your Mergenthaler Linotype Machine”, go-getting businessmen named “Kleek” and “Billigs”. The brilliant business start-up slogan “MacGregor and Benchley: Fine Frogs for Fussy Folk”. Dampfboot, tinsmith to the gods. Brilliant poet Lingard M. Lilacs.

Now the winter wore on, and it was still the birthday of Whang the Gong, for Whang the Gong liked birthdays, for birthdays are holidays and holidays are good. And Rum Blossom, his wife, came to him and said, lowering her eyes as she pulled the stump of an old tree and threw it into the wood-box, “I am going to have another baby.” And Whang the Gong said, “That is up to you.” And he rolled over and shut another eye, which was his third, kept especially for shutting. So Rum Blossom went into the library and had another baby. And it was a woman, or slave, baby, which, in China, is not so hot.

Benchley’s persona in his short essays is the typical middle-aged middle-class white-collar New Yorker between the World Wars, or he thinks he’s typical. A man who went to college, but not an Ivy League, maybe Hobart College or Bucknell [Benchley himself was a Harvard Lampoon alum]. A man who came to New York from a provincial city, enjoys the theater, is bemused by opera, and doesn’t see the appeal of motion pictures. He prefers an old-fashioned Christmas with ice-skating and sleigh rides to any vacation involving palm trees or a swimming pool. He follows college football, goes to horse races because his friends do, and looks down on baseball somewhat. His wife is educated and might be an editor or something. His frustrations include unbearably hot vacation trains, his sons’ bratty wealthier boarding-school chums, and the chaos of trying to meet friends arriving on a transatlantic steam liner.

Most of Benchley’s short films were made for MGM, some based on his columns and almost all written by him. Most or all are 8 to 11 minutes long. In the typical Benchley short [How to Sleep, How to Eat, A Night At the Movies, That Inferior Feeling], he’s the wry, faux-instructional narrator, describing the activities of a bumbling everyman [e.g. Joe Doakes] played by himself.

Then there’s the ones where he addresses the camera. The Romance of Digestion and The Courtship of the Newt are nonsensicalist spoofs of the science/nature documentary in which an expert uses charts and exhibits to lead the viewer through the basics of some subject. And occasionally he’s the pompous figure of fun, a Michael Scott type who blathers on with a combination of unintentional comedy and unctuous failed jokes. This describes his first theatrical appearance, The Treasurer’s Report [made for Fox], a filmed version of a comedy routine done for friends. What about Opening Day? Just as his early Fox film The Sex Life of the Polyp was adapted by MGM as The Courtship of the Newt with better production values, this is a repackaging of The Treasurer’s Report.

The plot: It’s the grand opening of the City of Sneeversport Municipal Park, with the hometown team about to start the season against Center Rusk. Mr. Benchley, city treasurer, is drafted to throw out the first pitch, in the absence of the honorable mayor George X. Peebles. But first, he’d like to deliver some words of welcome.

The speech: He bloviates in dry terms about the budget and the community. His vague and distracted comments are unpredictable, yet fall short of captivating. He uses the business buzzwords of the time, like the Babbitts Benchley parodied in his columns.

The response: A mass deadpan display of fidgeting that I found hilarious. At one point everyone applauds to get him to stop talking*. Players on the field sleep, do invisible-bicycle aerobics and play Hot Hands. There are three speaking characters — Benchley, a local grandee who introduces him [the team owner?], and a heckler played by the flinty John Butler of a billion other MGM shorts fame. [Here’s a piece about one of their “Crime Does Not Pay” two-reelers.]

Benchley: There is just one point that I would like to make, though, before we get on with this baseball game, which I suppose some of you are more interested in than in the condition of the city’s finances. But that one point is this. that for every cent you pay in taxes, you get an equivalent return in civic improvements.


Benchley: Thank you, my friend.

What are players like? Playful. The Sneeversport logo is a big “S”, and they wear multi-striped stirrups like today’s Cardinals or the 1956 Beavers. [Thanks, Uni Watch.]

What are managers like? N/A

What are umpires like? N/A

Is “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played over the credits? Strangely, no.

Any cameos from big-leaguers? You know, I wouldn’t be surprised. But not even John Butler is listed in the credits, so it’ll remain a mystery.

Climactic game? No, but there’s an exciting surprise at the end.

Was it filmed at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field? It was! It has that pilaster-studded LF wall you can see in the top photo here, and also visible are the “345” and “412” markings in left center and deep center. Add it to the list.

Will it wow me, the modern viewer, with its documentation of a bygone age, and if so, how? Well, he throws the pitch while standing in the front row of the crowd, instead of shambling over to the mound to bounce one over the plate. Somewhere along the decades this became accepted practice only for ceremonial hurlers who are superannuated or enfeebled.

We chose Friday April 11th because that was the anniversary, or rather is the anniversary, of the acquisition of Sneeversport from the Indians. I don’t think many of us here know the actual conditions surrounding the deal made with the Indians at that time. The Indians, as you know, held most of the land between what is now Main and Elm Streets. They weren’t very large Indians — would you mind standing up, Dr. Detweiler? — About the size of Dr. Detweiler, I should say, ha ha ha — but they did hold this land, and there seemed to be no way of getting them off it. Their chief was a man named Ekstrom, or Bergquist, or something like that — which being translated means “Chief Big So-and-so”. And he was a very good businessman, for such a small Indian.

* This happened repeatedly at my college graduation. Why? Nobody could hear the speaker. Literally, nobody could hear him. At the beginning, people less than fifty feet away could hear him. There were about 15,000 people there. Most couldn’t hear him from the start, and once a few started talking, nobody at all could hear him. It was a real shame.

16 metal frontmen with non-metal names


  • Brook Reeves [Impending Doom]
  • Chance Garnette [Skeletonwitch]
  • Schuylar Croom [He Is Legend]
  • Ross Dolan [Immolation]
  • Lindsay Dawson [Demoniac]
  • Liam Cormier [Cancer Bats]
  • Liam Cromby [We Are the Ocean]
  • Mike Score [All Out War]

L-R: Mike Score, Frank Maudsley, Paul Reynolds, Ali Score

  • Earl Ruwell [Into the Moat]
  • Winston McCall [Parkway Drive]
  • Merv Hembrough [Burning Skies]
  • Walter Schreifels [Quicksand / Rival Schools]
  • Chester Bennington [Linkin Park]
  • Buddy Nielsen [Senses Fail]
  • W. Whitfield Crane IV [Ugly Kid Joe]
  • Howard Jones [Killswitch Engage]

Not that one

A bucket of bloody superb dialogue

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I haven’t seen Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, but the musical version is cynical and overly noisy. I don’t like any of the people in Little Shop, whereas A Bucket of Blood [Roger Corman, 1959] is generous to all its characters and it’s a brilliant comic experience. Walter is annoying, dumb, and homicidal but it takes a long time before we stop rooting for him. Carla could be a wet blanket if Barboura Morris wasn’t so relaxed in playing her, and if the camera didn’t like her so much. As the Zach Galifianakis character, Julian Burton is more likeable than Galifianakis ever is. Leonard, who knows what Walter is up to, never has any real proof, so it’s more like he’s deluding himself. Even Alice is basically naïve and doesn’t take herself too seriously. [For more on Alice’s point of view, fans may want to read this odd short story.]

I’d like to write something about how Roger Corman’s work compares to other B-movies of the time, based on all the Mystery Science Theater 3000 I’ve watched over the years, but after reading this piece by Michael Ned Holte, it turns out that many things I was going to speculate about are facts. Holte straightforwardly describes A Bucket of Blood as the first film ever intentionally made as both a horror movie and a comedy, and how Corman was skeptical but was convinced it was a good idea by prolific screenwriter Chuck Griffith, who had more outlandish, but just as accurate, ideas of what the public wanted to see.  All those Abbott and Costello Meet the _________ movies were vaudevillean spoofs, they were not supposed to actually scare you, they didn’t contain explicit scenes of deadly violence. A Bucket of Blood does, and its comedy is not slapstick, all the humor is in the script. There was a tradition of “old dark house comedy-chillers” with witty dialogue, like The Black Cat and The Cat and the Canary [and The Old Dark House], which seem to derive partially from the tradition of the wry gothic novel and partially from the tradition of the cozy mystery-thriller. A Bucket of Blood is a horror movie of the viscerally visual sort, with little suspense, that would not be creepy or chilling or thrilling in novel form, and until 1959 had been treated humorlessly in movie form.

So let’s focus on the words. There’s plenty of good writing about A Bucket of Blood on the internet. Scott Ashlin describes the plot and characters well. Quint shows amused enthusiasm. Nigel Honeybone gives background info, focusing on the writer and art director. Nathan Shumate talks about Dick Miller and the beatnik background of the people involved. Tim Lucas writes about Barboura Morris. Scorethefilm gives us a ton of stills. Movie Magg talks about the music and the poetry [Julian Burton wrote his own poems].

IMDB has some great quotes, but there’s others that ought to be cited as readily as “I have to go now. My planet needs me,” or “I’m not going to pay a lot for this muffler.” I recommend watching the film [it’s in the public domain, available at] instead of continuing to read here.

At the end of this post, the characters are described for your ready reference. I might have gotten Oscar and William mixed up now and then.

  • Walter [frustrated at lump of clay]: Come on. Be a nose. Be a nose!

  • Police Chief [at station]: Anything new at the Door?
  • Art [at pay phone]: Well, nothing you can pound nails in. Couple of hustlers. One of ’em’s short, fat, brunette. Named Skinny. The other one was short also, she was bleached and skinny.
  • Police Chief: Named Fat?

  • Maxwell: Walter has a clear mind. One day something will enter it, feel lonely, and leave again.

  • Oscar: I saw a statue once; it was called The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me She Exploded.
  • William [annoyed]: Man, what kind of a statue was that?
  • Oscar: I don’t know, it was made out of driftwood and dipped in fluoric acid … very wild.

  • Lou: Okay, Walter, who’s your connection?
  • Walter: Connection?
  • Lou: Yeah, connection. Where do you score? Where do you buy your horse?
  • Walter: Horse?
  • Lou: Yeah, horse, junk, white stuff. Heroin!
  • Walter: Is that what this is? I never seen any of that before. I always thought that was expensive.

  • Walter: I’m workin’ on somethin’, it’s not ready yet.
  • William: What is it, man, finger painting?
  • Oscar: Draw me a picture of a house, Walter. Make some smoke comin’ out the chimney.

  • Maxwell: Attention. Attention, everyone. As you pass through these yellow portals, I am sure you noticed on your right a small clay figure — and assumed this transfixed effigy to be the work of a master sculptor. And indeed, so it is. That master sculptor is in our midst. He is none other than Walter Paisley, our very own busboy — whose hands of genius have been carrying away the empty cups of your frustration. Mark well this lad — his is the silent voice of creation. But in the dark, rich soil of humility he blossoms as the hope of our nearly sterile century. [everybody applauds] Bring me an espresso, Walter.

"Ring rubber bells! Beat cotton gongs! Strike silken cymbals!"

  • Maxwell: One of the greatest advances in modern poetry is the elimination of clutter. I am proud to say my poetry is only understood by that minority which is aware.
  • Blonde woman: Aware of what?
  • Naolia: Well, not of anything, stupid! Just aware.

  • Leonard: Besides, you’re creating an incident, and when people are applauding they don’t order coffee. So go on home and … work on something. Make another cat.
  • Walter: But I haven’t got another cat.

  • Oscar: Oh man, you should try the Sorrel Sewer. They got wheat germ bagels … too much.

  • Walter [in brand new hipster outfit]: Sylvia! Didn’t you see me wave my zen stick?
  • Sylvia: Why, it’s Walter Paisley.
  • Walter: Bring me a cappuccino and a piece of papaya cheesecake. And a bottle of Yugoslavian white wine.
  • Sylvia: Yes, sir, Mr. Paisley!

  • Leonard: I was just suggesting to Walter that he try his hand at free-form.
  • Maxwell: Why do you suggest anything to Walter? Are you the spokesman for society, come to put your stifling finger in his eye?

  • Alice: Maxwell! Yoo-hoo!
  • Maxwell: Clear the table. Bring a bowl. I may be sick.
  • Oscar: It’s Alice the Awful, come to spread cheer and cholera.

  • Alice: Look at my suntan, everybody.
  • Maxwell: Do we have to?
  • Carla: Where have you been, Alice?
  • Alice: I went over to Big Sur to look for Henry Miller.
  • Maxwell: You didn’t find him, I hope.
  • Alice: No. He’s in Europe.

  • Alice: Why is the busboy sitting here?
  • Walter: I’m not the busboy anymore.
  • Maxwell: That’s right, Walter has become a sculptor.
  • Alice: Oh really! I’m a model, you know. I only charge 25 dollars an hour. Would you like to do me?
  • Walter [gritting teeth]: I just might.

Oscar, William and Carla

  • Oscar: Man, this place is beginning to feel like a lineup.
  • William: Yeah, baby. It don’t cool out pretty soon, I’m gonna haunt somebody else’s joint.
  • Oscar: We may have to start drinking.

  • Walter: I don’t like you.
  • Alice: [giggles] Nobody asked for your opinion, Walter! You’re just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks.

  • Walter: That’s not true. I am a sculptor.
  • Alice: Oh yeah? Make something out of this. [holds a piece of clay]
  • Walter: [squishes it in her hand] There. Hand.
  • Maxwell: [laughs]
  • Alice: That isn’t a real hand. If you were a sculptor you’d create something for me.
  • Maxwell: A harpoon would be very nice.

  • Oscar: Man, if you’re gonna be an artist, you’ve gotta do nudes … nudes …
  • William: Right, right! Right! Ain’t nobody an artist unless he does … nudes …
  • Maxwell: Will you get them out of here before we wind up in night court?

  • Walter: Hi!
  • Maxwell: Morning, Walter.
  • Carla: Hi, Walter, what brings you here?
  • William: Have some breakfast, man.
  • Walter: What are you having?
  • Maxwell: Soy and wheat germ pancakes, organic guava nectar, calcium lactate in tomato juice, and garbanzo omelettes sprinkled with smoked yeast. Join us?
  • Walter: No, thanks. [pauses] Sounds great, though!

"Are these eggs fertile?"

  • Oscar: Man, why do you suppose Walter wants to get her alone?
  • William: Do you suppose he could be physically attracted to her?
  • Oscar: No, man, he ain’t the type. He don’t get enough vitamin E.
  • William: Maxwell gave him a bottle of wheat germ oil once. Maybe he just started taking it.

  • Walter: Oh, not me, Maxwell. I wouldn’t ignore you. I know what it is to be ignored.
  • Naolia: Tell us what you’re going to do next, Walter.
  • Walter: I’m gonna make the most wonderful, wildest, wiggiest things you’ve ever seen. I’m gonna make big statues and little statues, tall statues and short statues. I’m gonna make statues of nobodies, and statues of famous people, statues of actors, and poets, and people who sell things on television. And a statue of the mayor. And some opera singers and their intimate friends. And everybody’ll say “Walter, let me shake your hand. It’s been a real pleasure to have known you.” [everybody applauds]

  • Singsong paperboy: Extra! Extra! Horrible murder in furniture factory! Read about the man who got cut in half! Extra! Extra! Police can find only part of his corpse! Read all about it!

  • Leonard: Walter, listen to me, carefully. I don’t want you to make any more statues. Do you understand? No more statues.
  • Walter: Why not? I gotta make statues, Leonard. You heard Brock, they want me to make ’em. If I stop makin’ ’em I’ll just be a busboy again.
  • Leonard: Brock … he’s behind all this with his stupid bitter poetry.

  • Alice: Well, I don’t see why we can’t go.
  • Maxwell [wearing a tuxedo and sandals]: Mr. Leonard Desantis is afraid to have you come. You buy his coffee and lure his tourists. You are the heart and soul and meat of the Yellow Door. He’s slighted you.
  • William: Did you get an invitation?
  • Maxwell: I did not. But I am going anyway. Not to drink his champagne, but to see Walter’s triumph. After that, we go no more.

Our cast of characters:

  • Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) – nerdy busboy who envies the beatniks. That’s “nerdy” meaning “dull and socially awkward”, not the modern sense of “intelligent and part of a subculture”.
  • Carla (Barboura Morris) – intelligent and attractive mousy woman
  • Leonard (Antony Carbone) – capitalist and proprietor of the Yellow Door
  • Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton) – pompous bearded poet
  • Alice (Judy Bamber) – stuck-up blonde model
  • Art (Ed Nelson) – cop who goes undercover in a bathrobe and cowboy hat
  • Lou (Bert Convy) – cop who seems to be undercover but looks like a cop
  • Naolia (Jhean Burton) – overly emotional follower type. Possibly the first dope pusher mentioned by Art in his report.
  • Oscar (John Shaner) – laid-back wastrel in a battered hat
  • William (John Brinkley) – Oscar’s sidekick, with manic energy and a Confederate-looking hat
  • Sylvia (Lynn Storey) – adorable young waitress and gamine

In the film Alex Hassilev sings "Go Down, You Murderer" and the Gypsy song "Gari, Gari".

NCAA tournament picks from the National Institutes of Heath

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Straight from the study section, inspired by Chad Orzel, here’s how the NCAA men’s tournament promises to unfold, based on total NIH funding awarded to each college in 2010. We can’t assume that the school with more governmentally supported biomedical research will always win, but that’s probably the best prediction method now available.

The NIH bracket picks seem more astute than the physics-rankings bracket. We could have a Princeton – Penn State – Illinois – UCSB Final Four, but I’m putting my money on Washington – Michigan – Pitt – Vanderbilt.

Excerpt displayed; click the image or click here for the full bracket. Click here for pdf.


  • This is entirely based on the 2010 “Domestic Higher Education” spreadsheet available from the NIH here [downloadable .xls file]. I sorted it by the name of the institution [column A], tried to find any instances of an institution being listed under multiple names, and for each institution, added up the total dollars awarded [column G]. Next to each team is the amount of NIH funding [in thousands].
  • For a school that is part of a large university system, I didn’t include all the funding for its other campuses, unless they’re in the same city as the school itself. This leads to UT-San Antonio getting credit for the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and Arkansas-Little Rock getting credit for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
  • This rule hurt universities whose medical school or health science center is not in the same place as the main campus, particularly Tennessee, Texas [Austin], Kansas, Penn State and UConn. Although Kansas would still lose the 1-16 game if we include the Medical Center in Kansas City.


  • UNLV only got a million dollars from the NIH this year? Half as much as the Oakland Golden Grizzlies? UNLV is a huge research university. What are they doing over there?
  • Yes, Villanova were awarded no NIH funding last year. $0, less than Earlham College or Bloomsburg. They were on the 2009 spreadsheet, thanks to Dr. Jennifer Palenchar‘s work on trypanosome RNA synthesis.
  • Yes, that’s exactly $8,000 for Indiana State. And it’s not to set up a website or something, it’s to Dr. Allan Albig for “Mechanisms by which MAGP-2 promotes angiogenesis”. A small carryover from the $153,000 he got in 2009.
  • The least-funded school in the NIH Sweet Sixteen is Marquette, barely beating out BYU.
  • Tough result for the ACC, with Duke and UNC losing to juggernauts in the first weekend.
  • The overall champion’s performance is especially impressive since it doesn’t include the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Mixed Bag: “She’s trying to replace me!”

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Having not seen The Red ShoesThe CompanyThe Turning Point, or any other Baryshnikov or Aronofsky films except Pi, I don’t want to presume that my thoughts about Black Swan [Darren Aronofsky, 2010] matter.  I usually don’t make haste to see movies with celebrated sequences of eroticism, but this was the interesting kind of cinema eroticism (awkward/ominous/confusing), not the joyful/healthy kind. See the end of this entry for more. First, a few other items that come to mind on the topic of women being jealous and unstable and creative and whatnot.

Inside Daisy Clover [Robert Mulligan, 1965] is a picaresque, tomboy variation on the Star is Born myth, with Natalie Wood as Daisy and Ruth Gordon as her sainted, crazy mother. The characters are more complex than strictly necessary –especially Daisy herself; her life with her mother and friends is given time to bloom into a memorable setting before the bright lights beckon. The weary, sapphic mother figure isn’t a caricature. Christopher Plummer [I kept thinking it was Ralph Richardson] plays the archetypal svengali, combining megalomania and a robotic need for success. TV actor Robert Redford, whom Miss Wood insisted be cast, has the always-tricky role of the well-known star who can’t be played by an actual well-known star. Obviously he’s perfect for that, with his inaccessible charm. We’re lucky to be in his company, for however long he wants.

The finely drawn quirky characters, and the obvious satire of the glimpses of Daisy’s career [like a musical number that would work if renamed “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”], made me sure it was based on a novel, probably a thoughtful one by Herman Wouk or Budd Schulberg or someone. Turns out the original book was more of a sordid potboiler — author Gavin Lambert [I Never Promised You A Rose GardenThe Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone] enhanced the propriety and chipperness for his screenplay, as well as encrypting the homosexual content. He also incorporates an absolutely epic metaphor or possibly synecdoche, right near the end. What’s the most large-scale piece of symbolism you can imagine, in a “Teen starlet jaded by Hollywood” story? Are you envisioning the actress, after a particularly tumultous betrayal, in a small glass booth surrounded by bored technicians, staring at her innocent self on a giant screen as she tries to re-record her saccharin vocals? Are you? You are? Good work!

The circus is a wacky world

The urgency inherent in the showbiz exposé is here, but it’s not quite the desperate situation where the starlet battles ten dozen other starlets for a part or a magazine cover. When she tells the svengali to take a hike, he’s thoughtful about it. When she’s a star, and she doesn’t bother to show up for the difficult second premiere, it’s not the end of the world. And the final scene is fantastic. Turning on the gas, turning it off, hearing the doorbell, hearing the phone, everything else. Click here for a piece about the locations and studio lots used on Inside Daisy Clover, by someone who hates the movie but loves studio lots.

The Legend of Lylah Clare [Robert Aldrich, 1968] made me angry and led to an uncomfortable question.  What the heck is the point of this movie?  I try to avoid asking that, either because I figure I missed something, or because a movie doesn’t need to have a point. But one reason this film is awful is that it’s so convinced that it’s doing something groundbreaking that it goes nowhere. If we’re supposed to be disturbed by how Elsa Brinkmann has her appearance, demeanor and personality steadily altered to resemble Lylah Clare…well, from the beginning of the film she’s a blank slate except for her obsession with Lylah Clare.  And more to the point, they’re played by the same actress!  It’s reverse stunt casting.  Can we make Kim Novak look so unlike Kim Novak that the audience gapes in astonishment when she becomes Kim Novak?  No, you can’t.

Are we supposed to be horrified by the Hollywood decadence?  As Time pointed out at the time, plenty of other films [e.g. The Carpetbaggers] had done that in a much less mannered way.  Are we supposed to be captivated by the mystery of Lylah Clare’s death?  Well, that’s never resolved.  Aldrich had made the undeniably creepy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? six years earlier – now Lylah Clare alternates laughable with boring with impossibly overemotional.  26-year-old Roger Ebert agrees.

It’s worth watching the second half to see the requisite Ingenue-is-Finally-Ready-to-be-Introduced-to-the-Public scene and the few scenes leading up to it. Kim Novak II is brought out for the appraisal of a terrifying critic played by Coral Browne [The Killing of Sister George, The Ruling Class, late-in-life marriage to Vincent Price], and for once we don’t know what’s going to happen.

X, Y and Zee [Brian G. Hutton, 1972]

Six years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and four years after Boom!, Elizabeth Taylor is now in a baroquely bad marriage with Michael Caine.  This is a fantastic example of Taylor’s fearlessness in playing someone who is not just unlikeable, but uncharismatic.  Her character here is just an awful woman, like a cosmopolitan version of Bette Midler in Ruthless People.  She knows that everything she gets is by being passive-aggressive, manipulative or irritating, and she hates herself for it.

The husband is a classic Michael Caine character — unemotional, presumably moral, takes orders and makes big decisions in the course of his job [this time an architect]. Thinks most people deserve to be happy, but will never be happy himself until certain people are taken down a peg or two. Those people here are his wife and probably some of her friends. Scenes between Caine and Taylor have improvisatory fire, especially when she runs amok in the bedroom, starting to pack a suitcase or unpack a suitcase or play loud music or whatever annoys him the most.

Susannah York is the perfect quiet woman, and when he has dinner with her and her sons the scene is full of hope and promise.  Everyone who sees this film remembers the outrageously outlandish costumes, and the character played by Margaret Leighton whose alien style and dignity exemplifies the emptiness of “Swinging London”.  Personally I’d never seen a serious movie [except Blow-up] set in this world, so it was enjoyable from beginning to end.  As for the beginning, X, Y and Zee‘s lyrical ping-pong overture is one of cinema’s greatest credit sequences.  And as for the end, this is one of the rare instances of TCM extensively censoring a movie. You can tell that the film won’t end very conclusively, what with the great weariness of the two characters we like and the ineffectuality of Taylor’s character, but there is a climactic scene that either annoyed or offended quite a few critics at the time. Watching it on TCM I only saw the aftermath of that encounter, so I can’t say if it’s satisfying in its true form. Still a fun and worldly picture of emotional carnage.

Here’s a better blog-treatment of X, Y and Zee. Containing a bunch of representative dialogue, something I always appreciate.

Camille Claudel [Bruno Nuytten, 1988] was one of many foreign films on VHS my dad acquired in large eBay lots and gave to me, which then sat around my apartment for years until the pre-moving-out binge of tape-watching which let me know which ones to keep.  The first directorial effort by Bruno Nuytten after two decades as a cinematographer [Manon of the Spring, Possession, Barocco], it stars his romantic partner Isabelle Adjani as the legendary fin-de-siècle sculptress, Laurent Grévill as her sympathetic bourgeois brother, and Gérard Depardieu as celebrity art-factory proprietor Auguste Rodin.  It’s a labor of love, a biopic in which every scene could be shortened, but that’s not a problem.  If you’re interested in a movie about Camille Claudel, don’t you want to take your time and immerse yourself in her meticulously constructed world?  There aren’t going to be any more movies about Camille Claudel, so this three-hour film is basically a valuable historical reference in addition to being a complete emotional picture.

Camille Claudel depicts both genius and madness better than most other films that try.  Here the merging of genius and madness largely comes from other people treating the genius the same way they treat a disturbed person.  And the rational and manipulative Rodin, also prolific and creative but not touched by any spirit, seems almost like a pernicious symbol of capitalism.  This film is entirely about Claudel [and everyone else’s views of her] as much as Black Swan is about Nina. It shows what happens to her — internally and externally — with great objectivity.  She’s not necessarily to be identified with.  She never admits that she needs anyone, except Rodin.  As she is elsewhere, Isabelle Adjani is amazing when it comes to scarily freaking out in a sympathetic way.

By comparison, the far less interesting Artemisia [Agnès Merlet, 1997] idealizes its determined female art prodigy as a symbol of doomed, sexy rebellion.

As for Black Swan, it’s a spectacular cinematic experience for something filmed entirely indoors, seemingly entirely in cuts to and from closeups, and mostly in either tiny or dingy rooms. The sound design is fantastic — the pervasive classical music, the sounds of breathing and exertion, the inexplicable noises that cause unease.  My instinct is to complain about some of the Degrassi-level dialogue, but having seen True Grit the previous night — a movie in which every line is quirkified by 5-15% — I can appreciate the prosaic qualities of a script whose characters are thinking a lot about their inner lives and their bodies and not about how to phrase their thoughts.

There’s a line after Winona Ryder’s retiring ex-ingenue has been lashing out bitterly, when Thomas [Vincent Cassel] tells Nina, “Don’t worry — it’s typical.”  Don’t worry about what?  Typical of whom?

Nina (Natalie Portman) gets an unwelcoming look from Beth (Winona Ryder)

Nina’s home life is so odd and yet so well-organized that it’s clear the actors have in mind her complete psychological history, making her mother’s swings between “I knew you were under too much pressure!” and “I need to put more pressure on you!” plausible. Meanwhile, the thing that makes me want to see it again is that there are so many blurred lines between what’s actually happening and what Nina thinks is happening. Everyone who sees Black Swan will have a different impression of what actually takes place. We see just enough natural interactions among non-Nina characters to get a foothold on reality, and as for the rest, I’d call some scenes 50% real, some as 90% real, some 95% … so what you think is happening always depends on to what degree you take her to be imagining things. This sets it above other psychological thrillers. There aren’t major twists or turns or sudden shifts in perception, just progress through the story. Aronofsky is confident that we’ll care about everything that happens, not just the super-intense moments.

Every character is shallow enough that you know them completely after the first thing they say — but all the acting is great. As for Cassel not being convincing as a genius…it’s not just his clichéd speeches about spontaneity and letting go. His decision to pick Nina is based entirely on his ego, experimenting to see if he alone can bring something out of her that nobody sees.  That’s not a good way to run an organization, and it’s surprising when other characters express deep respect for him.  He sees ballerinas in general as unstable, but he ignores the consequences of that.  And he clearly didn’t learn the message of Nicole Holofcener’s films (Please Give, Friends with Money), that if someone is basically a miserable person who doesn’t enjoy the company of others, it’ll be hard for her to make others happy [unless she can give them money].

[Black Swan picture stolen from Demeter Clarc]

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