Monday, March 31, 2014


So – my three favorite Starbucks in Manhattan – at Bond and Broadway, at 17th and Union Square, at 39th and 8th – always remind me of Diner.  Why is that?  At first blush it seems these types of hangouts are quite different.  Of course, they are.  I’ll confess that when I’m in one of these places I’m not, like the ensemble six of Diner, debating the relative merits of Mathis vs. Sinatra or engaging in braggadocio about how  I can get a girl to grab my pecker on our first date – but I certainly see groups of young men who are the 2014 versions of these guys.  I often wonder if they even know what Diner is.  No longer young myself, I feel nostalgic pangs for the days when I and my buddies were on the precipice of busting out into the world.  I always think of Barry Levinson’s initial effort in these situations, and I guess it’s an open question as to whether or not allowing a movie to intrude on your consciousness so often is a wise idea. 
            Whatever!  What I hope to do on this blog is, eventually, get to discuss each of the six male ensemble characters in the film a little bit (the wife portrayed by Ellen Barkin is a cardboard cutout; in my estimation Levinson at that juncture in his career could not create authentic female characters, otherwise I would include her), one by one.  This will hopefully be at sporadic and unpredictable intervals.  At random, we’ll begin with Fenwick (played by Kevin Bacon; on the DVD Bacon gives an interesting insight into something he did that helped him play the role very effectively, for anybody who’s interested to that degree) and five scenes he figures in prominently.  Fenwick is an impenetrable character.  His motivation is hard to understand.  His burgeoning alcoholism is not explained.  His harsh sarcasm and cynicism has no given backstory.  All of this, in my opinion, is to Levinson’s credit.  He doesn’t cave in to the fear of presenting things without reasons behind them. 

            I list these simply for the sake of compilation:
1.      At the very beginning of the film, on Christmas night, the camera picks up Fenwick in the basement of the building where the Christmas party is being held, smashing windows and obviously drunk.  Boogie (Mickey Rourke) appears and asks him why he’s breaking the windows; he has no answer other than “It’s a smile.”  He also makes an intellectual remark about the composition of glass that presciently anticipates a later scene that shows off his intelligence.  He tells Boogie that he dumped his date for five dollars with a kid named Frazer; when Boogie observes that she’s only an eleventh grader and thus her intelligence is not fully developed, Fenwick’s answer is “Yeah but her tits were.”
2.      Reconciled, through Boogie’s efforts, with his date, Fenwick speeds his car down the road well ahead of the others (as they leave the party to go to the diner) so as to be able to turn the car over and fake a serious accident, smearing his face with catsup as fake blood.  Once the gag is found out and Beth remarks, “Very mature, Fenwick” his answer is “Fuck mature!”
3.      He watches a quiz show hosted by Allen Ludden (between students from Cornell and Bryn Mawr!) and knows all the answers, bitterly mumbling them or calling them out, confirming his intelligence and mastery of this material.
4.      When Boogie gets into serious economic trouble due to his wild, out of control betting habits, Fenwick tries to help out by going to his brother Howard, whom he despises, to try to borrow money.  Here we learn that he has a small trust fund, doesn’t work, is estranged from the family, and hates Howard.  Howard lectures him about reading Dale Carnegie and refuses to lend him the money to help Boogie.
5.      Smashed, he strips to his underwear and climbs into the manger in the life sized nativity scene on the front lawn of a local church.  (There’s a continuity error here.  The manger is empty, without the baby Jesus statue in it – as is the case in most scenes of this kind up until Christmas eve, when the baby would be placed in the crib.  However, the first scene of the film was shown with the title Christmas Night, so presumably this scene is occurring later, so presumably the baby would have been placed in the crib already.)  When Billy, Shrevie and Eddie come to try and fetch him he creates a scene of general chaos, fighting and knocking over statues, landing everybody in jail for the night.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Notes on a Scandal

            On this blog we generally try, with any given film, not to attempt to unravel more than maybe one half of one percent of the issues and questions that the film may raise.  This restriction sometimes hurts, especially with a picture like Notes on a Scandal that could probably support a 150 page essay on its own.  This motion picture is so meticulously planned, so well storyboarded, and so unusually rich both visually and verbally that it’s painful to pick and choose.  (Of course, it’s also incoherent and preposterous in places.  So be it.)  Here I’d like to rope off two different scenes that feature the same exact surprising revelation about a character.  One comes quite early on in the picture, the other much later.  Let’s get some background.

            Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett is well cast in the role, especially in the way her habitually loose, floppy clothes hang off her tall, lanky body; “Bash” to her husband) is new to teaching, beginning her first year in the art department at St. George’s School.  In her thirties, she’s begun a scandalous forbidden affair with her fifteen year old student Connolly (Andrew Simpson).  In the early scene I’d like to glance at here a much older, psychotic, delusional veteran teacher named Barbara Covett (Judi Dench does what she can with the hopeless role) finds out about the affair; in the later scene her much older husband Richard (the great actor Bill Nighy in a sensational performance) finds out. 
            Barbara is a lonely, bitter, misanthropic woman.  Her diary musings, given to us in great supply throughout the movie via voiceover narration, show her to be vain, condescending, manipulative, hateful, sneering, and a predator.  (We learn at the very end that a teacher, now gone, with whom she had a friendship – Jennifer Dodd – actually hit her with a restraining order.)  She is immediately taken with Sheba and watches her closely from a distance, making endless comments in her diary.  (In fact one of her diary entries opens the film – she remarks that her diary is the only thing to whom she trusts her secrets!)

            Barbara sees Sheba as “the wispy novice” who is “artfully disheveled” and that “they flock to her, even limp little Brian” (Brian being a meek, shy teacher who will play a key role later).  Of Richard, he’s a “crumbling patriarch”.  Their Down’s Syndrome child is a “court jester”.  When the family does some (admittedly trippy) dancing after dinner, this is “Bourgeoisie Bohemia.”  Yet, her sarcasm and rapier hate also betray an understanding of people born of deep and long experience – at coffee, when a fellow teacher remarks to Sheba and Barbara, “I’ve got an announcement,” Barbara says “You’re leaving St. George’s” and when the teacher says no, she then offers “Oh, then you’re pregnant,” which is correct.  She’s obviously seen the scene many times before.
            Barbara and Sheba first meet when the younger teacher is unable to stop a fight that breaks out in class between Connolly and Davis; Barbara rushes in to help.  She remarks that the boys are “little towers of testosterone”.  The incident gives her an opportunity to establish a beachhead with Sheba, a foundation for a friendship whose motives, we suspect, are not entirely sane or healthy. 

            Here’s how she finds out about Sheba and young Connolly- Sheba doesn’t show up for the school Christmas concert, so Barbara goes searching for her.  Seeing the lights on (it’s evening) in the art room, she proceeds to investigate. Of course she finds her – through a window she’s able to clearly see Sheba and Connolly having sex inside.  (In fact, the sighting is way too easy, which is a flaw in the film.  Anyone could have happened by and spotted the wrongdoing.)

            By this point we’ve gotten the feeling that Barbara is tough as nails and that very little in going to surprise or shock her, which makes the end of this scene remarkable.  The faces of the two women are caught in expressions that achieve what I’m tempted to call a kind of cinematic miracle.  Dench, Blanchett, director Richard Eyre and cinematographer Chris Menges all team up to create something extraordinarily powerful.  As Connolly sneaks away, Sheba has a kind of joyous naughty girl expression on her face that is worth twenty pages of dialogue.  Similarly, as Connolly comes out of the building and walks off, Barbara looks after him with a stare of incredulity that is absolutely priceless.  Right here – in just this one clip of film – the movie justifies itself as a piece of cinematic art many times over. 
            After cutting to Barbara, shell shocked, alone, in her apartment later that same night Eyre cuts quickly to Sheba in a supermarket parking lot with her mentally disabled boy, moving their groceries from the shopping cart to their vehicle.  Barbara calls her.  The comparison of the shots of the two women on the phone with each other is instructive – the older, alone, in her tidy apartment, holding the cordless phone in her hand exactly as well she might have done with a cordless rotary phone fifty years ago, the younger, with her child, balancing the cell phone on her shoulder, multi tasking. 
            Caught red handed, Sheba can do nothing but agree to a meeting.
            Eyre’s style here is very classically oriented – straight cuts, plenty of shot-reverse shot technique, commentative music (a score with no percussion by Phillip Glass that sets the mood).  As Barbara questions Sheba about the affair Sheba opens up in a way that she will not when, later, her husband finds out about the dalliance in a much more explosive scene.  (Keep in mind that Barbara has her own ulterior motives, selfish and personal, that I’m not getting into here with any depth –she manipulates the situation to her advantage, to suit her own purposes.  Sheba explains that Connolly came to her seeking help with his drawing (as it turns out almost everything of importance that Connolly tells Sheba turns out to be a calculating lie) and that one thing led to another.  She says it was “innocent”.  (Interestingly enough, later, when she is trying to explain it all to her husband, she claims the reverse.)  She sends him away but he “refused to accept it” and kept coming back. 

            But here’s the rub – she tells Barbara that it began to feel like their secret, and secrets are seductive.  While she knew it was all wrong, she says she began to feel “entitled”.  It asked her, Why shouldn’t you be bad?  You’ve earned the right (by being a good wife, loving mother, etc.) – why shouldn’t you transgress a little?  And so the bad girl impulse that we glimpsed on her face a little earlier comes around full circle.  
            And yet later, when she has the opportunity to explain the affair to her husband, all she can do is stammer that she doesn’t know why she did it.  We can have a field day with this, of course, and all the circumstances are not identical.  For example, Barbara found out about the affair entirely on her own, by being a peeping Tom, whereas Richard finds out because Connolly’s mother bursts into the house and throws Sheba a beating (in turn, she has found out about the affair through the grapevine – Barbara planted the rumor with the whiney, wimpy Brian a few days before and waited for it to spread).

            This film, as I say, is very rich and abnormally well planned.  Very careful attention has to be paid in order to catch numerous slices of important dialogue and critical visual information.  Too, a lot of the supporting players are very strong – I have to conclude that Eyre is very strong with actors.  Phil Davis, Michael Maloney, Stephen Kennedy and Derbhle Crotty are all superb.  Bill Nighy absolutely steals the picture.  (Watch the scene in which Barbara is trying to get Sheba to come to the vet with her while Sheba’s family is waiting for her in the car, to go to Ben’s play!)  I guess what stimulates me to include it here is the different ways Sheba reacts to Barbara’s and to Richard’s learning of her taboo affair.  As an overall example of the various departments of the cinema it ain’t too bad, either.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


            So look – in keeping with the tradition we’ve established on this blog of isolating one or two scenes of a film with an eye towards meaningful dissection, I would like to see what Airport can tell us about a particular concept that psychologists call companionate love. Obviously this means that I am not herein concerned with “disaster movie” nonsense or Grand Hotel type characterizations. 

            Please allow me to paraphrase John W. Santrock’s paraphrase of the famous Triangular theory of love as presented by the eminent psychologist Robert J. Sternberg:
                        “A relationship marked by intimacy and commitment but low
            or lacking in passion is companionate love, a pattern often found in
            couples who have been married for many years.”
            I’m interested in the scenes in Airport that involve D.O. Guerrero and his wife Inez, played respectively by Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton (Stapleton’s performance, at least up until her character has to interact with others in the ensemble cast, is absolutely gut twisting – it is one of the greatest in the history of American films, period.) 

            Let’s be clear – Airport is intended solely as entertainment, not art.  Nobody supposes that George Seaton, in directing and adapting the screenplay from Arthur Hailey’s novel, had the conscious thought, “Hmmm, let’s see what we can say about companionate love in this picture.”  Of course not.  (Although I will point out that other kinds of love that psychologists often classify are myriad in the film, in the relationships for example  between Bakersfeld and his wife, Demarest and his wife, Demarest and Gwen, and Patroni and his wife.)  Yet these scenes function as a great example of  the enormous power of the cinema to communicate abstract ideas, particularly ones that, once applied to practical existence, greatly touch our emotions.

            And, if I may add,  in these scenes every aspect of filmmaking is a participant – acting, directing, the set decorations, the art direction, the music, the essentially still camera, the minimalism of the dialogue – all of it. 
            I can’t say enough about the work of the set decorators – Jack D.Moore and Mickey S. Michaels, and the art directors, Alexander Golitzen and F. Preston Ames, in constructing the destitute, poverty stricken atmosphere of the Guerrero apartment and the desperate air of the cafĂ© where Inez works.  We first meet D.O. Guerrero about thirty five minutes into the picture, at a pay phone that turns out to be in the hallway of the building where he lives.  At first we’re thinking, in addition to who’s this guy, where is he?  It’s obviously not anywhere in the airport, where most of the scenes have taken place thus far - although there have been a few shots in other places, all of them nice looking and very pleasantly presented to us – the Bakersfeld home, Bakersfeld’s father in law’s club, a banquet hall, the Patroni home, Gwen’s apartment, and the dining room of one of the homes that’s too close to Runway 22.  Let me say again – all these other locales have been quite attractive, so our radar immediately goes up when we encounter the shocking gray-brown shabbiness of the Guerrero apartment.  Wherefore this squalor? 

            He’s been on the phone with the airline, confirming that the flight to Rome is still on schedule.  (As an aside – this is one of the few phone conversations in the film that Seaton chooses not to show as a split screen.) Already there are so many questions – he doesn’t have a phone in his apartment?  What kind of place is he living in?  What is he doing going to Rome?  Why is the apartment so run down looking?  As he moves into the bedroom and we see the bomb paraphernalia on the bed we begin to understand his connection to, and his part in, the larger story – especially as he tests the bomb’s rigging in the attachĂ© case a couple of times and the ominous music plays on the soundtrack.  Perhaps more importantly for this discussion, it helps us understand the magnitude of the lies he is telling his wife. 

            Next we see him trudging through the snowstorm to the modest coffee shop where his wife works.  Again, the set and the art direction are sensational, right down to the OCCUPANCY BY MORE THAN 53 PERSONS…sign. 
            As they sit for a moment and talk the level of his deception – known to us but not to her – makes us feel deeply for her because she obviously feels so deeply for him.  We know he plans to board a flight to Rome and detonate a bomb, but she thinks he’s going off to start a new job in Milwaukee.  Through the short, terse expository dialogue we piece together the details of what their life has been like of late.  He works in something like excavation and demolition and is apparently unable to keep a job because of his temper – he keeps getting into arguments with his bosses.  They’ve descended into bankruptcy and beyond – abject poverty, apparently – to the degree that he’s pawned everything but her mother’s ring, which she warns him not to do.  We don’t learn until later that he has had mental problems and was fired from his last job for stealing sticks of dynamite.

            Her simple, innocent faith - her companionate love – for him is so sincere and true that she doesn’t even ask for any kind of confirmation or proof of the new job, even when he makes the outrageous statement “I can draw an advance on my salary tomorrow.”  What?  Really?  On the first day of a brand new job, you need an advance on your salary?  That’s not a red flag in your new employer’s face? 
            Let’s eavesdrop on some of her remarks and comments in this conversation.
            “This isn’t going to be another one of these hello-goodbye jobs, is it?”
            “This time do me one favor – if your boss says two and two is six, agree with him.”
            “Don’t lose your temper.”
            “Nothing’s the way it used to be.  I’m not complaining…Better or for worse, I meant what I said.”
            After he drifts off into some nostalgic pipe dreaming: “Stop.  Stop dreaming.  Just hold on to the job.”
            “I can give the landlord another hard luck story.  Goodbye Dom.”

            He leaves and eventually boards the plane; through a series of plot contrivances she comes to realize exactly what is going on and races off through the night in the horrible blizzard to try and stop him from boarding.  As we follow this dazed journey of hers we come to sympathize with her totally, to be moved by her incredible devotion to a man who is by any rational estimation no good for her in any way.  And at this point we still don’t even know all the sorry details about him that we eventually will, after Bakersfeld questions her. 
            Following her run through the airport, and then seeing her shocked face pressed against the glass at the gate as she watches the plane go, it’s hard not to be stirred by her not only companionate but also (we realize now) unconditional love.  What a job of acting this is by Stapleton.  The situation requires that she communicate not only her horror at the realization that he’s going to explode a bomb on the plane but also that he lied extravagantly to her about the job in Milwaukee but also that his final act in this world was a misguided, desperate attempt to give her financial security.  This last also in turn demonstrates the depth of his love for her, although we must keep in mind that he still chooses to pull the cord even after he knows the insurance won’t go through.

            I hope this little discussion has gone a small way towards showing the amount of intellectual and emotional juice we can squeeze out of films in places where we may not necessarily expect to!!