Monday, August 31, 2015

A GUY WHO MADE WESTERNS

















It was how he said he wanted to be remembered, and typically understated.
           
When asked what artists he studied, Akira Kurosawa replied, “I study John Ford.”
           
Steven Spielberg says that before he makes a movie, he has to watch Ford’s 1956 classic Western The Searchers for inspiration.
           
In the documentary The American West of John Ford (1971), John Wayne says, “He doesn’t just point the camera, he paints a picture with it.”
          
The pictures he painted were often at odds with history. “Jack used history,” says Henry Fonda. “He didn’t feel he was married to it.”
           
A six-time Academy Award winner, Ford never won an Oscar for a Western. He made his first Western in 1917 at the age of twenty-two, a two-reeler starring himself. Notable among the 145 films he eventually directed, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and My Darling Clementine (1946), all starring Henry Fonda. But it was his choice to give a young assistant prop man a chance on screen that changed history, for better or worse.
           
John Wayne (real name Marion Morrison) starred in his first Ford picture with Stagecoach (1939). This was Ford’s first talkie Western, and his first shot in Monument Valley. Located on the Arizona-Utah state line near Four Corners, the mesa-rich region is also called John Ford Country for the nine films he shot there.
           
The problem with Ford’s Westerns is the totally inaccurate and terrible depiction of Native Americans. It’s easier to appreciate Ford’s films because they’re more accessible than the overtly racist works of filmmaking pioneer D.W. Griffith, but the accessibility also eases the racism along. In later years he dismissed concerns with his films by saying, “But my best friend is Woody Strode.”
           
What would help is if we could all watch films sitting next to Martin Scorsese. For example, of The Searchers, Scorsese sees Ethan Edwards, the character played by John Wayne, as a “poet of hate” who “acts out the worst aspects of racism” when he shoots the eyes of a dead man so that, in accordance with the beliefs of his people, the man will never find paradise in the after-life. John Wayne liked the character so much, he named one of his kids after him.
           
According to Jimmy Stewart, who starred with John Wayne and Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “For John Ford, there was no need for dialogue. The music said it all.”
           
“Ford had the best eye,” says director John Milius. “The visuals in John Ford movies have never been surpassed.”
           
To see why John Ford ranks with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock as one of the most beloved and studied directors, check out She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), or The Quiet Man (1952).






 Stewart Kirby writes for
 
         

Saturday, August 29, 2015

SIGNS OF THE TIMES
















Four good reasons not to propound Intelligence Quotient tests:

Under 143+ PH.D.s wrongly has an apostrophe.

Under 164+ the composer's name is actually Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, not Amadeus W., and the composer pictured isn't Mozart, anyway. That's Beethoven.

Bobby Fischer's name has a "c" which they incorrectly omit, as well.

The fine print at the bottom says the source material is The New York Times.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NONE OF WHAT YOU HEAR









August before last I went over to a friend's. I had a reason to be there, and called first. My friend said I could come on over.

So I got there and saw everybody was playing pool or watching it. Almost everybody had been drinking, and I started in, happy to do so. I floated around, and talked to different people. One guy had a daughter in high school there as his designated driver, and gave me shitty eyes when in conversation I happened to mention Plumber's Crack.

"I will thank you to please never speak in this manner in the presence of my daughter!"

"Yeah, don't worry about it," I said, turning away, "I didn't invent it. Everybody knows about Plumber's Crack." In fact, there's even a commercial for a brand of t-shirts with three extra inches of material to help hide Plumber's Butt. So whenever the commercial's on, that must be a terrible tragedy for the poor fellow.

I noted the incident to a dude back inside at the pool table. He was pretty well stinko, as per usual. At one point he raised his arms having said what passed for a jest, I guess. I'm not sure why his arms were up, but it seemed fine at the time for me to place a friendly fist to his exposed midsection. I placed it there, and then gently pushed, with very minimal effort, and no force at all. It was a buddy gesture. Like a clap on the back. That's all. Oh, but he acted like I had struck him. And said so.

It was ridiculous. He looked like he was about to cry. Over nothing. He was shaking and screaming. "You wanna punch me? You wanna punch me?"

"Ease up, dude, simmer down. I didn't punch you. Jesus." No shit. Because if I had, he wouldn't be up and about. Goddam he unmanned himself. Tears were right there. Fuckin' tears...over nothing.

Thing is, he's kind of a dinky guy. He always wears two t-shirts to try to make himself look bigger. Even when it's hot out. And like I said, he was pretty well stinko, as usual. I don't know his personal history, but I suspect some sort of really bad physical abuse because he needed to act something out, that's for sure. After making a pissy fuss he tore off in his truck. A guy with a girlfriend (for now) and a kid, over nothing. That's what being a dink and drinking too much booze for your little body to handle will do.

So then a couple of his stupid bitch buddies didn't like any of that, being stupid bitches, and started trying to stick up for him. Well, the hotter they get, the colder I get. I didn't budge an inch. And when the pissiest one screamed for me to leave, screaming so bitchy, and got up in my face, I just lifted my shades off my shirt, set them on the garbage can lid, and said, "I ain't goin' nowhere."

The one thing that saved these twats was being at my friend's house. He's been good to me. So I was on my extra-best behavior.  But at this point it was about respect, and quite calmly and clearly I said so. Seeing how a woman's word kindly said I'm likely to abide, when one said, sincerely, "Everybody would respect you more if you'd just leave," I walked away with all the dignity in the world.

One thing that bothered me for a few days afterwards was that I really did think these guys were my friends. The other thing that bothered me was knowing whatever bullshit story they told my buddy--he was down at the barbecue and probably saw very little if anything--may well have been sufficient in his eyes to override all our years of being brothers.

Consideration of which reminds me, yet again, yet again:

Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.



Sunday, August 16, 2015

CLASSIC SWASHBUCKLERS AND GREAT ADVENTURES




Errol Flynn
as Robin Hood 
in 1938












           
Overthrow of corrupt power, restoration of authority, culmination with romantic union. Done with dynamic action in film, frequently featuring swordplay on a ship or in a castle, it’s called a swashbuckler.
           
Webster’s defines the word as a daring adventurer—swash meaning swagger, buckler meaning shield. In film the swashbuckler starts with Douglas Fairbanks. Without sound (other than an organist playing off to the side), and without color (although they did have a two-tone effect to differentiate night from day), Fairbanks starred in The Mark of Zorro (1920), inspired by Robin Hood legends and set in California, two years before he starred as the outlaw of Sherwood proper.
           
Fairbanks did it all before anyone. The Three Musketeers (1921), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926) showcase the infectious enthusiasm and impressive physicality that made the Colorado-born actor the first action movie star. He collaborated with his equally cinematically successful wife, Mary Pickford, director D.W. Griffith, plus the most famous person in the world, Charlie Chaplin, and together they formed United Artists.
           
But it was Warner Brothers, a generation later, which produced the three seminal swashbuckling films: Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940) all feature the amazing combination of Hungarian director Michael Curtiz, actor Errol Flynn, a Tasmanian, and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, born in what is now Czech Republic.
           
As the bridge between both versions, character actor Alan Hale played Little John to not only Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in 1922, but with Flynn as well in 1938.
           
Flynn’s unique verisimilitude accounts for much of the film’s success. (There’s an interesting documentary from Turner Classic Movies, Welcome to Sherwood, about the making of the film, much of which was shot in Chico.) It was also an early Technicolor movie, though, and remains one of the best examples of sheer attention to the use of color in film. As Maid Marian, Olivia De Havilland positively beams with indescribable winning charm. She starred with Flynn and classy baddie Basil Rathbone three years earlier in Captain Blood, and worked with Flynn in several films afterwards. 




Olivia De Havilland
in Captain Blood (1935)






          
Curtiz’s signature use of shadow as a filmmaker achieves sublime heights in the climactic sword fight between Rathbone—an accomplished fencer—and Errol Flynn, with action fluidly and flawlessly contributed through the music of Wolfgang Korngold, a prodigy whose first orchestral piece at age 14 caught the attention of Strauss and Mahler.
           
The Sea Hawk has the most rousing score of any swashbuckler, but lack of color and lack of De Havilland puts Raphael Sabatini’s story slightly behind the legendary outlaw.
           
He may have been a poor man’s Errol Flynn, yet Stewart Granger—real name James Stewart—starred in three of the best adventure movies ever, all featuring tremendous swashbuckling flair. King Solomon’s Mines (1950), plus The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche, both in 1952, richly exemplify the genre, and all but scream to be seen on the big screen.
           
Still another generation later, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, directed the best film versions of Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers (1973)—it doesn’t make much sense that they’re called Musketeers when what they use all the time is swords, but whatever—and The Four Musketeers (1975) both look like living Rembrandts and brim with bawdy humor and dashing action featuring Michael York, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston and an all-star cast.
           
The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a Rudyard Kipling story directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as a pair of bold, unscrupulous freebooters, is certainly one of the best adventure films. Yet, like the excellent Robin and Marian (1976), there is none of the sweeping charm, a vital element in the swashbuckler not seen again until Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). 

















 Stewart Kirby writes for

Monday, August 10, 2015

EDGAR RICE BURLS, LORD OF THE REDWOODS





















BARNEY STARTED a woodworking business when he was just a couple units shy of graduating with a degree in Basket Weaving, or whatever. He called his business The Burl Barn, and for many many years he said he'd go back and finish up that degree. Not that a college degree would impress the tourists who buy his journeyman carpenter redwood burl slab tables, mirror frames, bowls, chests, and chainsaw carvings. It's probably for the best he never got it. Knowing him, the same stuff sold by Barney, Ph.D., would automatically get jacked up to twice the price.

I found myself working for Barney when I was fifteen after my dad, a highly skilled carpenter himself, had taken a few minutes after teaching one afternoon to walk across the street from the high school and talk with Barney. I didn't know if Dad went over there with the express purpose of lining up work for me or if it just happened, but the immediate result of their conversation as I saw it was the loss of my weekend trips to Africa. Dad had also been the one to introduce me to the hardback copy of Tarzan of the Apes crouching up in the shelves of the high school library some years earlier.

I did not feel lucky to have the opportunity to work part-time in a burl shop. Sure didn't look like no Opar to me. If I impressed him with hard work after a test run weekend, he might be inclined to keep me on part-time for awhile. I had had other part-time jobs before. Lawn mowing, pool cleaning.

When my well-knit body strode, Adonis-like, down the driveway my first Saturday morning at 8 am even though "Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle" would be on in only a couple of hours, I saw a guy with messy hair, high-water pants and suspenders standing in the shop doorway holding a steaming cup.

"You're late," he said, holding his hot cup up to his face and sounding like Phobeg in the dungeons of the City of Gold. "I'm Barney, put the signs up." This he said with a wave of his hand as he gulped from his mug and went back in.

I wasn't sure I heard him correctly. What exactly did "put the signs up" mean? I looked behind me. Near the road, on the left hand side of the wide drive lay something that looked like an overturned sign. I walked over to it and turned it up. In big arching letters the sign read THE BURL BARN. Beneath the letters a nineteenth century-style hand with a cuff at the wrist pointed to the shop. Seeing no other overturned signs, I walked back down to the shop.How I longed to take to the trees, and search for the spoor of Horta, the boar. I was annoyed at what was evidently a test of Barney's authority and my capability, and resented being put in a position where I had to endure games, but I was both too young and too old to refuse the job.

Beyond an open Dutch door with latticed windows various redwood items neatly filled the display room. A short length of chain demarcated this room from what was at that time the larger and less tidy shop area. Barney leaned behind a wooden counter with the cup between his hands like an Irish guy in a pub. All very European.

"You're late," he said again.

"I thought I was supposed to be here at eight."

"That's right, you were," he said, raising his voice and launching into a lecture. "When you go to work you should show up at least ten minutes early, at least. That's just how it works in the real world and that's how I run my shop." He walked around the counter, removing one end of the chain from a nail as he passed, then returning it, and walked out of the shop, motioning with a finger or two for me to follow.

On the right hand side of the drive next to a telephone pole lay a piece of scrap wood, on the underside of which I saw after Barney propped it up bore the message OPEN. This he did with an air of superiority that, again, a commencement speech would never have helped, every fiber of his very being saying, "See, stupid?" Come to think, he actually did say that. I thought he was stupid to assume I knew where some stick was lying in the dirt. Then he swaggered back down the drive like Phobeg or Buto or Duro, down into a little grove of trees in which was piled a mountain of redwood burls. He chose a small one which seemed to have strayed from the mountain and heaved it several yards away, where it landed in dead leaves and yellow grass.

"This pile of burls needs to go over there," he said.

"Okay."

"I can't afford to throw my back out messin' around with this." It sounded more like a lecture than instructions. A lot more.

"Gotcha." I grabbed a biggie and tossed it where he'd thrown the first.

"Don't break 'em! These things make me money. This is how I earn my living. Do I go over to your house and break your things? I don't want you to walk 'em over either. It'll take you forever. I don't like paying people to do things the wrong way. I've been running this business for a buncha years now. You were probably in diapers when I started this."

I had in fact recently fashioned a loin cloth. From a pillow case. And worn it down at the bridge.

After inspecting for a little bit, Barney swaggered back into the shop.

Amazingly, I found myself enjoying the work--mostly because he wasn't there--working up a sweat, getting paid to workout. I felt like a character from Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read somewhere Burroughs stayed at the Benbow Inn. What about a guy raised by Bigfeet? I wondered. Putting my body on auto-pilot, I stared into the Pelucidar of my pineal gland.

I remembered Barney from years before. My buddy Mike, a red-haired smartass, had spent the night one fall Friday, and the next morning we got up early to have fun. We played ping pong and dorked around at the Whispering Woods Motel until we got bored. Then I told Mike of the fun we could have down in the forest throwing spears and knives and making rope swings. We intended to get a couple of Cokes and some candy at the store, until we noticed two things: that neither of us had any money, and that there was a dark mass of smoke billowing over the trees at the north end of town. Figuring we could maybe do a little work to make some snack money, we walked down to where the smoke was and saw a gigantic burn pile. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Where there had always been a mass of tick brush and poison ivy, that was all gone. Now it was dirt and trucks and guys throwing debris onto what looked like a two-story burn pile.

Mike asked a man if we could help out, and the man said it was okay with him, but we should ask Barney.

"He's over there," the man said pointing with a shovel. "The one with the suspenders." He needed them, with that big gut. Without suspenders, it would've been like trying to put pants on a giant egg.

Barney stood on the side of the smoldering pile yelling orders to a man operating a skid loader trying to drop a tree on top. When Barney hopped down, Mike said out of the side of his mouth, "Okay, ask him."

"You do it," I replied to the side.

Then the man with the shovel appeared.

"Hey Barney!" he said. "You got a couple of boys here want to do some work."

"What do you want to do?" Barney said to us.

I looked at Mike.

"We just want a little money for some Cokes and a couple of candy bars," Mike said in a manner both dismissive and hopeful. "Just a couple of bucks. Maybe five bucks."

"Each?" Barney said incredulously.

The man with the shovel laughed. We smiled like ballsy little imps. Things looked good for us.

"Tell you morons what," Barney said, scooping up a rusty strip of metal at his feet. "I need the trash around here picked up. Pick up crap like this, and any wood you see like that"--he grabbed a splintered stake lying in the dirt--"and toss it over there out of the way. I want all this crap cleaned up." He tossed the rusty metal and the splintered stake in the direction he'd indicated and said, "Then we'll talk about pay."

Afterwards, Mike and I agreed that Barney was a dick.

We kicked a few things around trying to look like we were working hard for about twenty-five minutes before someone said it was lunch. After awhile, Barney reluctantly parted with four ones, reminding us not to tell our folks he'd let us split a Coors. Warm.

He was standing in the doorway again now, with yet another steaming cup. Smoke rose from the shop chimney. Under the trees I barely noticed the gray morning drizzle.

"Break-time," Barney said. It didn't sound friendly, but more like an order. As though I were a machine he figured couldn't go the distance without rest.

"I'm not done," I said all friendly-like, pausing with a ridiculously big burl in my grip, aware that I was holding it as if it were lighter than it was. Not for nothing had I read all those Tarzan books.

"It's 10:30," he said to my surprise. I couldn't believe how fast the time had flown by. "You do a man's work, you take a man's breaks," he said.

"That's okay," I patiently replied, chucking the ungainly chunk to the top of the new mound with the speed of a striking panther. "I'm almost through." By that I meant I was halfway through. Yes, let the Tarmangani retreat to the civilization of his coffee and his shop, I thought. And next time, don't interrupt a man when he's working.



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