Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number One

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#1 — A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
I would like to think that a satire of mass media — of television, in particular — wouldn’t still be pertinent some fifty years later, that five decades of intellectual evolution would have moved United States society past the point where it’s frighteningly susceptible to the sorts of opportunistic charlatans that populate A Face in the Crowd. Instead, the alarming relevance of Elia Kazan’s film has only swelled over the years. The film powerfully portrays genial hucksterism preying on the eager masses and a happily pliable audience ready to buy anything that’s being sold, as long as the pitch is settled in the right sort of homespun wisdom. Play to their good, moral, God-fearing common sense while maybe touching on a fearful nerve or two, and the suckers will follow absolutely anywhere. Indeed, the only part of Kazan’s film that has aged questionably is the end, when comeuppance arrives in the exposure of a core lie and the audience flees. These days the curtain between deceit and truth is in such tatters that successful subterfuge is inconceivable. And yet the assembled nod and cheer like never before. A Face in the Crowd isn’t cynical enough.

There’s an intriguing added layer to A Face in the Crowd, a bit of retroactive meta commentary that stems from the actor recruited to play lead character Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. Andy Griffith was already a successful comic monologuist and Tony Award-nominated stage performer when he made his film debut as Rhodes, but his most famous work was ahead of him. Three years after this film was released, Griffith would start portraying small town sheriff Andy Taylor on television, and it’s difficult to view A Face in the Crowd with seeing the dappled colors cast backward by that prism. It becomes all too enticing to view the bulk of Griffith’s career as a version of the trickery plied by Rhodes and his team, feel good bumpkinism cooked up to win mass appeal while behind the scenes everyone counted money. I don’t actually think Griffith or anyone associated with the show that bore his name were actually as manipulative as that (the later Matlock may very well have been pure calculation). That the remainder of Griffith’s career rouses suspicion at all is less an indictment of him and more of a marker as to how effective he is as Rhodes. Griffith is savage in his forcefulness and surgical in his ability to slip from genial folksiness to black-eyed, mercenary chill. He’s perfectly teamed with Patricia Neal, playing the radio producer who effectively discovers Rhodes and serves as his manager on his climb to national stardom. Neal is the barometer of her charge’s blackening soul, initially charmed and impressed by him before growing ever more troubled as his influence grows. Neal’s ability to ground a performance in a subdued, naturalistic emotional honesty is precisely what’s needed against the raging tempest of Griffith’s work.

Working from a script by his On the Waterfront collaborator Budd Schulberg (the screenplay is based on Schulberg’s short story Your Arkansas Traveler), Kazan is at his most pointed and purposeful here. The stage whisper of sanctimony that sometimes dogs his other work is entirely absent. Even though the film has a clear point of view, Kazan presents the material as an exploration rather than an indictment. Maybe his gavel hand was stilled by an awareness of his own culpability as one who cunningly dictated to audiences, as any skilled film director must. Or perhaps Kazan felt a deeper empathy with those who let their political passions circle them away from a stable center, making him reluctant to cast too much fault on anyone, regardless of the side of the camera on which they resided. Then again, all that dollar bin psychology may offer no insight as to artistic purpose. The distinctive achievement of A Face in the Crowd may be nothing more than focused artistry naturally combined with the necessary fortuitous kismet to shift an accomplished film to the level of masterwork. No matter how it got to its finished form, A Face in the Crowd is a stunning, thrilling, sharply modern work.

Whatever it takes I’m giving, it’s just a gift I’m given

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The new film Wild captures an element of hiking along out on a trail in manner I’ve never quite seen onscreen before. Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is on a solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a relative novice as a hiker, but sees the endurance test as necessary part of rediscovering and reclaiming her better self, the inner person who’d gone missing after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Somewhat deprived of the sort of dialogue exchanges between characters that are the grease which keeps narrative gears moving smoothly, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Vallée go deep into Cheryl’s thoughts. This sometimes manifests as a voiceover that sounds like fairly straightforward narration. In those instances, it’s usually clear that the words are pulled from the journal Cheryl keeps on her journey (this personal writing was surely the foundation of Strayed’s 2012 memoir from which the film is adapted). More often, the working of Cheryl’s mind is presented as a mélange of sounds: names, words, song lyrics that infiltrate the brain like distant echoes. These fragments float on the soundtrack until they gel into a specific memory, allowing the film to engage in the familiar process of filling in backstory through flashbacks. As opposed to the convenience of linearity opted for by most films, Wild strives to show how the mind and memory actually work, especially in relative isolation. There’s a lot of distracted flailing until some truth is arrived at, almost by accident.

While necessarily fragmented and episodic, Wild overall has the discipline of sound filmmaking rather than an overly loose energy that might mirror the scattering landslide of thought. In fact, there are a few instances when the scaffolding of the storytelling is a little too apparent, later moments of wrenching emotion set up a little too clearly and efficiently. Overall, though, the movie charges ahead with a profound sense of purpose. It is a single person’s story, but embedded within it are an abundance of sharp observations about how the world works, especially for women. The lengthy, lonely hike on the Pacific Coast Trail is full of beautiful vistas and moving encounters with the mosaic of nature. It is also fraught with danger, sometimes thanks to the treacherous unpredictability of humanity and sometimes simply from a single unfortunate choice, like a sidetrack on the wrong route or boots that aren’t quite the right size. Cheryl is out to discover herself through the reflection the great outdoors casts back at her. Sometimes that image is made murky by cruel interlopers who see her less as an inspiring wanderer and more as an opportunity for whatever menace they choose to perpetrate.

In what might very be her strongest performance to date, Witherspoon is especially good in those moments when Cheryl must calculate the risk in front of her. The awards show clips will undoubtedly focus on the bigger, tearier moments, but what really makes Witherspoon’s acting click is her commitment to the little moments, those that speak to the full experience undertaken by the Cheryl (she also nails the physical wilting that comes from carrying a heavy pack across multiple miles). Witherspoon does something here that I’ve sometimes found wanting in her other performances, even those that are most acclaimed. Through the commitment she brings to the totality of the characterization, she ties the disparate experiences together to show how they are all part of the same person, a reflection of her spirit while simultaneously shaping who she is. It’s a quality that is both simple and devilishly elusive in any performance, usually present in a subtly conveyed sense of inner spirit that is nearly indefinable. Wild is Cheryl’s journey. On some level, it’s also Witherspoon’s. It’s a testament to the performance that I’m not entirely sure which version of the journey is more meaningful.

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 2

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2. Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll

Most of the albums on this list are imprinted on me deeply enough to hold a deluge worth of water, sitting as they were in the various tiers of the new music rotation when I was first becoming acquainted with the joys of serving the public interest, convenience, and necessity as a college radio deejay. Even those that didn’t eventually get an honored place in my personal music collection stir a heady nostalgia in me, placing me right back in that square studio that served as my most dependable on-campus home during my undergraduate years. That’s why it’s so odd to me that Blue Bell Knoll is an album I don’t remember one bit from my first semester at the station. It’s in the runner-up position on this chart, and yet I can’t testify with certainty that it was even part of my station’s record library. Cocteau Twins aren’t exactly a band that I would have gravitated to back then (I was averse to anything that sounded too soft, too lush to my ears that craved buzzing, crashing guitars), but it’s almost inconceivable to me that an album could have been this popular during that fall without becoming part of my resonant soundtrack. I’d like to think the album was one of those that vanished from the studio, absconded away by a deejay with sticky fingers and not enough money to buy every album they burned to possess. Even though the mere thought of theft from the station sets my teeth to grinding in anger, even twenty-six years after the crime, it’s preferable to believing that I could have been so closed-minded to a music that didn’t immediately speak to me.

I could have maybe been forgiven for missing one of the earlier four albums released by Cocteau Twins. The Scottish band may have inspired a devoted cult following, but they had trouble getting their albums distributed in the United States. For Blue Bell Knoll, things were different. It was their first album released under a stateside agreement with major label Capitol Records, and they were the beneficiaries of a reasonably generous promotional push. There was even a splendid lead U.S. single, “Carolyn’s Fingers,” that slightly reshapes the band’s trademark sonic eddies with a bright pop beauty, punctuated by attention-getting heavy trills across Elizabeth Fraser’s lead vocals. The more I think about it, the album seems downright unmissable.

And there are plenty of other pleasures to be found on the album. The title cut is an ideal opening track, quietly explosive in its swirl of ethereal sounds. Or there’s “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,” which takes the Cocteau Twins formula and speckles it with multi-colored sugar. The record is immersive and forthright in its intoxicating splendor, pushing into the same realms of heavy atmospherics that would eventually engage my fandom when traveled by the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine using darker, droning guitars. There are moments on the album that still leave me a little chilly — as one example, “Spooning Good Singing Gum” sometimes sounds too much like a lullaby sung by a seductress reeling from a overly hefty dose of absinthe — and Fraser’s tendency to deliver the lyrics as if they’ve been translated into an impenetrable, otherworld language can make the whole landscape of the album recede into the background. Still, listening to it now is enough to convince me that I should have listened to it then.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime
–4: Peepshow
–3: Nothing’s Shocking

From the Archive: The Nightmare Before Christmas

I regret that not one of the five-hundred-plus words of this review is “Selick.” I bought completely into the hype of the time asserting that The Nightmare Before Christmas was a Tim Burton creation, and anyone else in the credits was simply doing his bidding. Director Henry Selick later expressed some consternation that his painstaking work was marginalized in favor of lauding the more famous producer and co-writer of the project. I’d argue that Selick’s far better track record with subsequent stop-motion animation features than Burton’s suggests that, as with most other films, the director deserves the heftiest share of responsibility for what does and doesn’t work.

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As a director, Tim Burton has always been a marginal storyteller who made up for muddled plots with the sheer audacity of his imagination. Seeing his deliriously odd creations run amok on the screen in the major new feature film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The film, crafted with stop-motion animation, relates a fable about the Pumpkin King ruler of Halloween, a toothpick-thin, hollow-eyed soul named Jack Skellington. Jack and the other denizens of Halloweentown are still celebrating their achievements during the most recent All Hallow’s Eve, but Jack is filled with a longing for a new experience. His wish is granted when he stumbles into Christmasland and is joyously awestruck by the snow, colorful lights, and goodwill. This leads Jack to kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas, constructing a coffin sleigh led by skeletal reindeer and delivering morbid gifts such as severed heads and cute wooden duckies with viciously sharp teeth. As Jack is embarking on his misguided celebration, Santa Claus is being tortured by the film’s villain, a sadistic, bug-infested gunnysack named Oogie Boogie.

Clearly, this is not your father’s Disney animated feature. The film is darkly funny and downright creepy while providing a gluttonous feast for the eyes. In a nicely devious touch, the stop-motion animation is a direct descendant of the annually repeated old Christmas specials featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But Rudolph’s adventures never bustled with as much activity as this film. At times it seems there’s a different treat to spot on every inch of the screen, with the stunning designs of the holiday towns and the loopy cast of supporting characters, led by Halloweentown’s boisterous mayor, a politician who’s literally two-faced, as the mischievous trick-or-treaters who abduct Santa Claus, Lock, Shock, and Barrel. While it’s true that most of these creations never become fully realized characters, they are always zipping through the film in crafty, funny form.

It’s more of a problem that the character of Jack Skellington never completely takes shape. The voice characterization by Chris Sarandon is thoroughly bland. Far better is the film’s song and score composer, Danny Elfman, who lends Jack his singing voice. In any given song, Elfman expertly whips Jacks through a dozen different emotions, ricocheting from shame to pride to determination with the change of a line. With the exception of “What’s This,” the song that accompanies Jack’s discovery of Christmas, none of the songs have the kind of hook that locks in your head, but Elfman’s lyrics occasionally approach the brilliant wordplay of late “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” lyricist Howard Ashman. In fact, the only music that doesn’t delight is a slow, droning love song sung by Sally, the sad rag doll who pines for Jack. But that’s just representative of the whole subplot, a love story that seems so obligatory that no one involved in the project even attempted to breathe life into it.

Yet, at a brisk seventy-five minutes, the film doesn’t linger on anything long enough to drag it down. While it’s true that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” may leave audiences leaving a bit undernourished, as if they’ve just viewed a film without a center, the wild, witty, and completely unique images that mask the emptiness will not soon be forgotten.

(3 stars, out of 4)

One for Friday: Neko Case, “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”

 

Sometime during my first pass through college radio, the onslaught of tribute albums began. There may have been some genuine affection for certain performers that inspired such efforts or at least colored the performances by the acts recruited to fill out the grooves. The real driving force, though, was the dead certainty that the most direct way to a college deejay’s heart was with one of their ragamuffin rotation staples playing a really familiar song, likely from an artist they secretly loved but has no entry to their ultra-hip airwaves. This how we got, say, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones covering Kiss and Indigo Girls plying their harmonies on “Uncle John’s Band.” There were plenty of instances when this parade of contrived covers became tiresome, but there were almost always gems to be found.

This is where, by tradition, I lapse into some sort of Scrooge-like grousing about the prevalence of cloying Christmas songs this time of year, hitting like a barrage any time I walk into a public place with an overhead P.A. at their disposal. And then I explain, with equal disgruntled language, how the track I share today represents “one of the only Christmas songs I can tolerate,” or some such thing. Keeping that to a (meta-tinged) minimum, I’ll instead get to the link as quickly as I can. It’s Neko Case covering one of Tom Waits’s great story-songs. More than most weeks, the track should speak for itself.

Listen or download –> Neko Case, “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”

(Disclaimer: It is my belief that this track appears only on New Coat of Paint, a tribute album featuring Tom Waits songs, that was first released in 2000. It is also my belief that this album is out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that will provide due compensation to the artists, the songwriter, and the proprietor of said store. There are loads of records by Tom Waits or Neko Case that should be purchased from those shops, perhaps this weekend as a Christmas gift. I would be very happy if Santa put a vinyl copy of Middle Cyclone under my tree, for example. Begging complete, I should note that I will gladly remove this track from the internet if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)