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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

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Understanding Screenwriting #87: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, A More

Coming Up in This Column: J. Edgar, Hugo, Sullivan’s Travels, Hell on Wheels, The Closer, but first…

Fan Mail: Happy New Year, and welcome to pigs flying and Hell freezing over: David Ehrenstein actually had complimentary things to say about stuff in this column TWO columns in a row.

And thanks to “Keith” for clearing up where the “Marlene” in Martha Marcy May Marlene came from. I can now sleep better at night.

J. Edgar (2011. Written by Dustin Lance Black. 137 minutes.)

On the one hand…: Writing about Dustin Lance Black’s script for Milk (2008; see US#14) I gave Black a hard time for the lack of characterization for most people in the film. It was an example of the “characters” in a documentary, in this case the 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk, being more interesting than his fictionalized versions. I am glad to see the awards, including the Oscar, that he won for that script did not prevent him from trying to improve his work. The characterizations in this script are terrific, from his version of J. Edgar Hoover down to the smaller parts. This gives us a wide range of great character scenes. We see Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) in a couple of doozies. Throughout the film we get great scenes between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson. I particularly liked two Tolson scenes. In the first Tolson kisses J. Edgar and the latter reacts violently. It could easily have become camp, but Black, DiCaprio, Armie Hammer (as Tolson), and director Clint Eastwood keep it from getting out of hand. The second is late in the picture when an aging Tolson “corrects” Hoover’s recollections and we see what really happened in multiple previous scenes. Those scenes were flashbacks as J. Edgar is dictating his memoirs.

One reason the first of those two Tolson scenes works so well is that Black deals with Hoover’s possible homosexual feelings in wonderfully subtle ways. It would have been way too easy to make him a simple closet case, but Black goes into why Hoover had trouble admitting to any homosexual feelings. Black gets that across by giving us a sense of the attitudes of the time and how they affected individuals. I pinged on the script of Milk for often being politically “on the nose,” but that is definitely not the case here, or at least not culturally “on the nose.” The film spends most of its time in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘60s, so we do get a sense of how things changed over that period of time. In the ‘20s and ‘30s Hoover is almost an heroic figure as he establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We see him fight for fingerprinting and other scientific crime-fighting techniques that old-timers put down, but we also see him be very picky about the personal details of his agents. Television writers I talked to about working on the ‘60s series The F.B.I. told me that Hoover was still that way. At one point a writer wanted to give Inspector Erskine a cold, but Hoover insisted F.B.I. agents did not get colds. Although there were still very few black agents in the Bureau in the late ‘60s, Hoover was agreeable to having a black agent on the show, probably to make the Bureau more modern than it was at the time.

Since Hoover ran the Bureau for fifty years, there is a lot that is left out, enough to make another film. We get nothing from the ‘40s (capturing Nazi spies) or the ‘50s (searching for Communists). I missed those periods, but Black is probably smart not in include them in an already long film. By dropping them, he may give us a better sense of the changes in attitudes between the early and later years. If you are jumping from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, the visual changes alone will help shift our minds a bit before anybody says or does anything.

On the other hand, as much as I like a lot of this film, it is in one way a complete mess. Black is constantly cutting back and forth from time periods and it is hard to adjust to, even given the visual clues. He will give you a great scene, say one between Hoover and his mom, then cut to some different time period. He will get us involved in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, then not pay it off until we have time-jumped several times. We are constantly losing the emotional threads, which takes us out of the picture. I admire Clint Eastwood a lot as a director, but handling this kind of time-jumping has never been his strong suit. You can see what I mean in Bird (1988) and Hereafter (2010).

Hugo (2011. Screenplay by John Logan, inspired by the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. 126 minutes.)

Hugo

Lumpy: We sweep into a Paris train station in the 1930s and meet Hugo, a boy of about ten who lurks in the upper reaches of the station. His uncle used to keep the clocks running, but when he disappeared, Hugo continued the job, unbeknownst to anybody in the station. So he spies on the other people in the station, which gives us good visuals: the people who work there and Hugo’s reactions to them. OK, fine, but the film takes forever to establish all that. Hugo loses a notebook he cherishes, and Georges, the old man running a newstand, refuses to give it back. Hugo will not tell him what’s in the book. And doesn’t tell him. And doesn’t tell him. It is 45 minutes into the film before we find out about the automaton that Hugo is repairing, based on his dead father’s notes in the notebook. Georges tells Hugo he burned the notebook, but Georges’s ward, Isabelle, gives it back to Hugo and they become buddies. It is an hour into the film before we find out that Georges is in fact Georges Méliès, the great pioneering French filmmaker. Through Tabbard, a French film scholar, we get a flashback of a visit Tabbard made to Méliès’s studio as a boy. It is beautiful recreation of the studio, but Tabbard is a minor character, so we wonder, why are we getting his flashback? Especially since later Hugo and Isabelle persuade Georges to tell them about his work, and we see essentially the same material. It would have been much more dramatic if we saw it through Hugo and Isabelle’s eyes as Georges tells us all about it.

It has also taken us half an hour to get from finding out who Georges is to getting his version. Like so much in the film, it could go quicker, a lot quicker. Much as I love, film historian that I am, the recreations of Méliès’s studio and work, there is almost too much of them, since it takes us away from Hugo. The movie shifts from being Hugo’s movie to Georges’s movie. I know the filmmakers love old films, and as much as I love luxuriating in the material about Méliès, it throws the film a bit out of whack. And as a film historian, I also noticed some historical glitches. Méliès’s career did not end because World War I changed audience attitudes, as the film states, but because Méliès kept making the same kinds of films over and over and over again. His 1912 film A Voyage to the North Pole is hardly different from his classic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. He simply did not grow with his audiences. Now there’s a lesson for filmmakers.

Two other minor details. Some critics have complained that the character of the Station Inspector seems like a slapstick intrusion, but to me he fit nicely into the film, and I think the director did a very nice job getting Sacha Baron Cohen to give a nuanced performance. The other detail: Hugo is in 3D, and because the director (Martin Scorsese) and his cinematographer (Robert Richardson) know film as well as any two guys around, the use of 3D to give us a sense of the space of the station is brilliant. Psst, don’t tell Marty I said that. He’ll think I am going soft in my old age, although based on some evidence below, I may be.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941. Written by Preston Sturges. 90 minutes.)

Sullivan's Travels

The Sturges Project, Take Four: After the success of The Great McGinty and Christmas in July (both 1940), Sturges was afraid he was due for a flop with The Lady Eve (1941), but it turned out to be a big hit as well. Zanuck had loaned Henry Fonda for Paramount for Eve in return for Sturges coming to Fox to make a film. Sturges passed another of his trunk items, Song of Joy, to Zanuck, who thought it was second rate and guessed that it had come out of the trunk. The Zanuck-Sturges collaboration would have to wait. According to Brian Henderson in Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, Song of Joy was something of a meta-cinema satire on Hollywood, with Sturges constantly pulling the rug out from under us as to which movie we are watching. That appears to be the only element that he brought over to Sullivan’s Travels. According to Sturges’s biographer James Curtis (in Between Flops), Sturges intended to make fun of directors whom he felt were getting too much into sending messages. Curtis does not indicate which directors Sturges had in mind, but there were plenty around. Capra is name-checked in the film, and Sullivan’s first name John may be a reference to John Ford. Sullivan’s middle name is Lloyd, which may be a reference to Sturges’s Paramount stable mate, Frank Lloyd. Sturges started writing Sullivan’s Travels in February 1941 and he started shooting in early May. Henderson points out that there are fewer changes from draft to draft in Travels than there are in earlier Sturges screenplays. Partly that was because it was not based on previous scripts, and partly it was because Sturges was getting more confident. He may also have been getting sloppier.

Henderson mentions there are a number of logical holes in the script. We start with a clip from a melodrama that supposed to be about the conflict of labor and capital, but in the office scene that follows it is never made clear whether this is a film somebody else made, or whether it is the one Sullivan wants to make. It appears to be the former, and it also appears that Sullivan wants to make a film of a book, but he hardly mentions it in the office scene. Henderson also seems a bit huffy about the mixture of seriousness and slapstick in the film. As I was reading his essay I was bothered by his comments, since Travels is one of my favorite Sturges films. Then I read the screenplay. It simply did not live up to the film.

Oh my God! What happened? Partly it may have been that Henderson’s essay turned me hypercritical, and I began to find other inconsistencies, e.g., why in the chain gang sequences is the Trusty carrying around a newspaper that must be at least a couple of weeks old? The classic opening scene in the studio office seemed as good as I remembered it, but then the script becomes, as Henderson noted, uneven. You could defend the script against that on the grounds that it is a picaresque tale, but in the script I found a lack of connections. I had an even bigger problem when Sullivan meets The Girl. I always got on my screenwriting students for not giving their characters, especially the majors ones, names, and here is the great Preston Sturges doing just that. There did not seem to be much going on between Sullivan and The Girl in terms of what we will watch, and I was never clear in the script what she was after. She does not seem sexually interested in Sullivan, and she is very casual about his being a big director who might give her aspiring actress a break.

It may also have been that I am simply getting old and not as perceptive about screenplays as I used to be. I have always prided myself on being able to spot what is playable in a script and what isn’t. I have been wrong before, of course, as in looking at a middle draft of the screenplay of Jaws (1975) and thinking the shark jumping up on the boat and eating Quint would be totally ridiculous on film. Or, it occurred to me that this may be one of those very rare cases (see the notes in US#65 on Casanova Brown [1944] for an example) where the film is better than the script.

As you can imagine, I then sat down to watch the film with a combination of dread and hopeful anticipation. The film gets off to a rousing start with the clip from the drama. It does not look like anything else we have seen in Sturges. It’s visually darker, for one thing. Sturges’s cameraman on The Great McGinty was William Mellor, who had a distinguished career shooting such films as Giant (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), but had been very condescending to Sturges. The cameraman on Christmas in July and The Lady Eve was Victor Millner, who had shot films for De Mille (The Crusades [1935] and The Plainsman [1936]), but also shot 1932’s Trouble in Paradise for Lubtisch. Milner obviously learned how to fill the screen from De Mille. In the De Mille films he fills the screen with props and set decoration; in the Sturges films he fills them with Sturges’s stock company of character actors. Milner was unavailable for Travels and was replaced by John Seitz, whom we talked about a little bit in the comments on The Badlanders in US#58. He could handle the mixture of light and dark Sturges wanted in the film, and he makes this scene dark but still with the energetic action Sturges stages. It may not look like a Sturges scene, but it feels like one. That’s not the last time we will see that in this picture.

Seitz was also not above goading Sturges. As they got ready to shoot the studio office scene, Sturges was considering the various angles he might use and Seitz said, “I dare you to do it all in one take.” Sturges replied, “Well, I have never refused a dare in my life.” Sturges had written the role of Sullivan specifically for Joel McCrea, who insisted that nobody wrote scripts for him; they wrote scripts for Gary Cooper and any that Cooper turned down went to McCrea. McCrea had only had limited stage experience and most movie actors were not required to do long takes. But he was game, after Sturges assured him that if it didn’t work they could cut it up into smaller segments. So they shot it in a four-minute take, which is what you see in the picture. Like the Bildocker-Parker scene in Christmas (see US#85) the result is a scene that could only be in a movie written and directed by Sturges. McCrea’s Sullivan is a slightly pompous guy whom McCrea gives a likeable quality to. He is arguing to be allowed to make a serious picture. Sturges has given him not one but two studio executives to fight. Why two? One would make the scene more focused. But two makes it more lively as they double team Sullivan, so the dialogue goes back and forth in a zingier way. And Sturges has made LeBrand (probably named after his studio patron William Le Baron) and Hadrian not unsympathetic. They are not above comparing their hardscrabble backgrounds with Sullivan’s privileged life. And here’s the real reason you have two of them: after Sullivan leaves, LeBrand and Hadrian call each other for lying through their teeth about their poor younger days. McCrea may have not had much stage experience, but he recognized great dialogue when he read it. He said of Sturges’s scripts, “He wrote dialogue I could just look at once and do.” In this scene the writing is wonderfully poetic, with recurring phrases, like LeBrand’s insistence on having “a little sex” in Sullivan’s movie. Next time you watch the scene, count the number of times the phrase comes up, and who says it and how. Well, I was relieved that scene worked on film at least. The first two scenes also reminded me of the varied visual styles of the three opening scenes of Citizen Kane, which was just going into release in May 1941 when Sturges started shooting. Kane probably did not influence the script, but it may have made Sturges and Seitz realize you how many varieties of visual looks you could have within the same film.

Next we see Sullivan preparing to go out as a hobo with only ten cents in his pocket. His Butler, played by Robert Greig, who appeared in three Sturges films, objects to treating poverty as simply something to be studied. It is one of those smart off-the-wall speeches that Struges wrote better than anybody, and Sturges gives it its due by shooting Greig in closeup. Sullivan is then on the road and we get the slapstick scene with the “land yacht,” the trailer the studio has following him. It seems a little too frantic, but the script and the film have established that we are going to see everything in this film. Struges does not stage it as well as some other directors might. Then, in the script, Sullivan is picked up by Mr. Carson, who asks him about his travels. Carson turns out to be the local sheriff and threatens to throw him in jail for vagrancy. The scene was cut from the picture, perhaps for length, but it may have been too much foreshadowing of the hobo scenes later on. It may also have been cut because it was too similar to the scene with the truck driver who gives Tom Joad a ride at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Both Carson and the trucker notice that Tom and Sullivan’s hands are not working man hands.

The film goes from Sullivan escaping the land yacht directly to the scenes with Miz Zeffie and her sister Usula. In the script the sequence seems like just a picaresque diversion, but the scene in which the three of them are watching a movie is developed with a little more detail in the film than in the script. It becomes the forerunner of the famous movie scene at the end of the film. Sullivan escapes the sister in another slapstick scene and ends up…back in Hollywood, which becomes a nice running gag in the film as well as a unifying element in the film. The movie scene and the returning to Hollywood work on screen as connective material.

He goes into a diner and meets The Girl. Sturges had passed over a lot of other female stars to go with Veronica Lake. He had seen her in the rushes of I Wanted Wings (1941) and liked how she read her lines in a way that dominated the scene. She stole that picture when it was released. And she was perfect for the part of The Girl. And here, my children, is why Preston Sturges is PRESTON STURGES and Brian Henderson and Tom Stempel aren’t. Lake was known in her later starring parts, such as in This Gun For Hire (1942), for her sexual insolence. What Sturges saw was that he could have her use that insolence in a non-sexual way. Yes, it’s in the lines, but Sturges’s understanding of how she could deliver those lines makes it play on film. As a writer and director, you have to understand the dynamics between the lines and the performer. The lines are not bad, but you have to have been Sturges to know how they needed to be read. The script is good, but subtle in a way we do not expect in Sturges. And that kind of subtlety is tricky for a reader, even one as experienced as I am, to get. The Girl is constantly challenging Sullivan, and he and we never know what she is going to say to him. Sturges and McCrea didn’t know either. Lake had already begun to develop a terrible reputation, and she showed why on this production. She was late and hardly ever knew her lines. By the time she got them after several takes, McCrea, who was better on the early takes, was worn out. Lake is the reason the film went over schedule and over budget. She is also one of the many reasons the picture works. When McCrea was offered the lead in her 1942 film I Married a Witch, he turned it down, saying, according to Robert Osborne, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”

So Sullivan and The Girl go on adventures, always ending up back in Hollywood. When they hop aboard a freight, the picture begins to darken, visually and emotionally. At one point Sturges and Seitz have a long montage of Sullivan and The Girl walking through the slums of a big city. After all the non-stop dialogue, it is strikingly visual. The print quality of Travels on the boxed set is not top drawer, and I suspect, given their reputation, the stand-alone DVD of Travels from the Criterion Collection is probably better, but I can assure you that neither one can hold a candle to a great 35mm print. Once at LACC we rented a 35mm print from Universal and ended up getting a brand new one, fresh out of the lab, without a mark on it. My projectionist and I sat there slack-jawed at the brilliance of Seitz’s cinematography. His ability to combine of light and dark provide another method of holding the film together.

Henderson points out that Sturges, in his direction, does not give us a close-up of the hobo who steals Sullivan’s shoes so that we will recognize him later. But I think Sturges is, once again, ahead of Henderson and me. Sturges understands that we do not have to see that it is the same guy. We can assume that it was, or, given that this is a picaresque tale, we may think the shoes have changed hands several times before they show up on the bum who is killed.

Sullivan ends up on a chain gang, and who is The “Mr,” the man in charge? Our old friend Al Bridge, here not in a comic part as we have seen him, but as a real hard-ass. And he is just as good in this as he was in those parts. And because we “know” from previous Sturges films that he can be funny, Sturges has him laughing the loudest as the chain gang watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in the black church. Jimmy Conlin, the shortest actor in the Sturges stock company (he appears in all eight of the films we will be discussing), gets one of his biggest roles of The Trusty, who has a wonderful scene, shot all in shadows, as he tells Sullivan how to survive, a scene that would not be out of place in any drama of the period.

Watching the Mickey Mouse cartoon is, along with the first scene in the studio office, the best known in Travels. Sturges wrote in the screenplay that on the screen “…we see a silent comedy, possibly Chaplin in The Gold Rush, possibly a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler.” He settled on the Mickey Mouse cartoon. I think Sturges’s direction, and or editing, is a little off in this scene, since he has the audience laughing a lot quicker than we do, but the message is so great we don’t mind too much. When Sturges started writing the script, he had no idea what Sullivan would discover on his travels. Sturges took away everything from Sullivan and discovered that the one thing he still had was his ability to laugh.

So naturally he ends up back in Hollywood and no longer wants to make Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? This now irritates the studio people because his adventures have produced great publicity for it. In his final speech, Sullivan says, “…there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh…did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much…but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan…”

When Sullivan’s Travels was completed, the new executives at Paramount liked it, but realized with its tonal shifts it would be a difficult film to sell. So the poster consisted of a drawing of Veronica Lake with her by-now-famous peek-a-boo hairdo, which never really appears in the film. Joel McCrea is nowhere to be found, and the ad line is “Veronica Lake is on the take.” That would have been perfect if the film was The Lady Eve, but it’s not. Audiences who went expecting Eve redux were disappointed and the business never picked up. Pop quiz: how would you sell Sullivan’s Travels to an audience in 1941?

Hell on Wheels (2011. Multiple episodes. 60 minutes.)

Hell on Wheels

You’d think…: By now you know I love westerns. And you know I love train movies. For all my reservations about John Ford’s 1924 classic The Iron Horse, I’ve seen it several times. You know from US#30 how I feel about De Mille’s 1939 Union Pacific, but I am probably not yet finished watching it, either. So this new series should have been right up my alley. It is set in the Post Civil War era and like the Ford and De Mille films deals with the Union Pacific building its westward link of the Transcontinental Railroad. I will even buy that the plains of Alberta, Canada, where it is shot, can more or less pass for the American plans of Iowa and Nebraska. But the writing is sorely lacking.

The “Pilot,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, the show’s creators, begins with a man going into church in Washington D.C. He goes into a confessional, but he does not confess. So the man on the other side takes out a gun and shoots him. No, the Catholic Church did not develop a stricter no-confession policy in the 1860s. The shooter is Cullen Bohanan, an ex-Confederate soldier who is hunting down the Union soldiers who killed his wife. He squints under his wide-brimmed hat and seldom smiles, so we are maybe in Outlaw Josey Wales territory. But Cullen is simply not that interesting a character (not a patch on Josey) and Anson Mount, who plays him, does not give us any look into his soul. Cullen joins the railroad to look for the other killers, like The Iron Horse’s Davy Brandon, who is searching for the man who killed his father. Since he had slaves before the war, he is put in charge of the black laborers, including Elam, who does not have much of a characterization either. Durant, the boss of the railroad is a standard corrupt businessman, but not particularly distinctive. The only interesting character in the pilot is Johnson, the yard boss. He is given a very rich performance, better than the script deserves, by Ted Levine, more recently known as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer on Monk. Johnson knows the whereabouts of the men Cullen is looking for, but just before he can tell Cullen where the men are, Elam kills him. I almost gave up on the show at that instant. Killing off your most interesting character, guys? Jeez.

I went back for two more episodes. The second was “Immoral Mathematics,” written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton, which spends its first 33 minutes with Cullen imprisoned in a boxcar. Oh, like that’s really visual. He makes his escape and ultimately convinces Durant to let him take over Johnson’s job. Cullen’s nemesis in this episode is the Swede, a large man, dressed in black, who is Durant’s enforcer. He is the most interesting character in this episode, so I figured he would not last out the episode. He did. The third was “A New Birth of Freedom,” written by John Shibau. Cullen has found Johnson’s papers, which leads him to thinking he knows where one of his wife’s killers is. So he rides out to find him. Wait a minute. He has just been given the new job of yard boss, and already he’s leaving the yard for several days? And Durant does not fire his ass? Cullen finds Lily, the widow of the railroad surveyor, who was killed by a group of Indians John Ford would have rejected as politically incorrect. Lily has been wandering around in the wilderness, wounded, but smart enough to know that if she ever gets back to the railroad, the tube she holds onto with his late husband’s maps will be a nice bargaining chip. They make it back to the camp just as there is a funeral for her husband and his associates. Wow, a funeral at a railroad camp out on the Great Plains. You and I don’t have to think too hard to imagine what Ford or Stevens or Hawks or Mann or Boetticher or Peckinpah or even H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone (see US#28) could have done with that. Here we get a couple of speeches in a tent. I’m leavin’ Cheyenne, pardners, and lighting out for the Territory.

The Closer (2011. “You Have the Right to Remain Jolly” episode written by James Duff & Michael Alaimo. 60 minutes.)

The Closer

Ho, ho, ho: The Closer has been mostly a dramatic show (Detective Brenda Leigh Johnson and her team solve crimes), and the comic moments come mostly from the great set of supporting characters in Brenda’s team. This episode does deal a bit with the Federal case against her, but it mostly focuses on a much lighter murder case. Buzz, the team’s videographer, and his visiting sister Casey, are at a Santa theme park they used to go to as kids. Santa, in a new twist, is to arrive flying through the sky on a zipline. Somebody has tampered with the equipment, and while he does hit the chimney, it is only to splat against it. There are immediately suspects: the dead Santa Randy was married, but fooling around with one or more of the Elves. His wife and the Elves get into a fight as Brenda and her team arrive. The male members of the team are very taken by Casey, and we get recurring bits of them trying to cozy up to her during the case.

The owner of the park is Santa Jack. He smokes, drinks, and during one drunken talk, alas before he has been Mirandized, almost confesses to fixing the equipment. Is this a perfect part for Fred Willard or not? That’s who they got, and he’s terrific. Buzz is very disappointed to have his Christmas ideals about Santa broken, although Casey, the smarter of the two, is not surprised. It turns out Santa Jack’s niece was trying to kill Jack so she could take over the park and sell it to developers. She goes to jail, and Jack sells the park anyway.

In a one-hour procedural, there is not time for as many Christmas jokes as there are in this year’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but some are wonderful. Willard works his Santa beard as well as Joe Pesci works his hairpiece in JFK (1991). And stay through to the closing tag in which Casey, a TV weatherperson in Seattle, goes through her usual “We’re keeping track of the weather for Santa” bit, and then reacts differently when the camera goes off.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30

To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1x2z_rY1Fjk

Pepsi Commercial

Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

Music Video

Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xvjnay4kS8

Blond Ambition Tour

Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4vSbVWm6F8

Mad’House Cover

Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)


MTV On Stage & On the Record

Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.


Sticky & Sweet Tour

After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.


Super Bowl XLVI

Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.


Met Gala 2018

Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.

For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”

In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.

See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.

Picture
Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book (WINNER)
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Director
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice

Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Actress
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Original Screenplay
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Foreign Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Animated Feature
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)

Cinematography
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez

Original Score
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Original Song
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Costume Design
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy

Sound Mixing
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow

Sound Editing
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay

Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)

Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)

Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)

Animated Short
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez

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Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions

Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

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Someone Is in My House

Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.

At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.

Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”

Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.

To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)

Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.

However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.

Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.

Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.

David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.

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