House Logo
Explore categories +

5 For The Day (#1120 of 68)

5 for the Day: Scientists on Film

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Scientists on Film
5 for the Day: Scientists on Film

As with all things worth their share of time, recent responsibilities in the turbidity of life have prompted me to consider where my interests lie, a question that inevitably manifested itself in my own cinematic curiosities. These thoughts concerned the authenticity of cinema, on what filmmakers attempt to show, and what we as viewers are and aren’t interested in—heavy but critical questions asked last year by the closing season of The Wire. In fact, I’d credit that series’ meticulous depiction of a massive range of personnel and creator David Simon’s modus operandi of “stealing life” for sparking the theme of this piece: What movies have gotten my profession right?

I am a research scientist, a walk of life whose cinematic counterparts are relegated to a few stale options. We are either a) adequately described with a single adjective, b) contracted by the government or some other institution to explore the unknown, c) create monsters, or d) miniaturize our children and, in the sequel, ourselves. Science and scientists are frequently used as means to explore the fantastical, which is not a criticism but an observation that filmmakers are not interested in the scientists, only the plot points their escapades help reach (or incidentally the plot holes they help cover). Just a handful of films seem to be interested in the lives of people at all. I began to wonder why it is that few seem to be interested in what I value—cinematic form, an organized directorial sensibility and authentic texture, to list a couple—and if what I value in any way reflects what is indeed valuable. Years ago, Robert Altman referred to cinema as the great enabler that allowed us to live many lives. Today we go to the movies to escape.

But I digress. In compiling this list (unranked) I was not interested in the accuracy or validity of the scientific concepts presented, but rather the authenticity of the relationship between scientists and their work. This was admittedly challenging, and surprisingly so, considering cinema’s entirely capable reach. Naturally I don’t presume to speak for the entire community, but trust that the details of our work life and our inquisitive vigor cross fields of study.

5 for the Day: Ensembles

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Ensembles
5 for the Day: Ensembles

While Lord knows the last thing the Oscar telecast needs is to be longer, one category I would love to see added to the proceedings is Best Ensemble. The Screen Actors Guild, among other entities, recognizes the achievements of ensemble casts, and it’s invariably the only award that captures my interest (even when the end result is The Full Monty). Nothing against the accomplishments of individual actors, but many of my favorite movies feature entire casts—leads, supporting performers, bit players along the margins—working either in concert or discord, but always functioning along the lines of how David Milch viewed Deadwood. “(I)t’s a single organism,” Milch said about his show, “and I think human society is the body of God, and in a lot of ways it’s about the different parts of the body having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time…(a) more confident sense of their identity as members of something larger than themselves.” One need not be as devout as Milch to see the appeal of that perspective, or to reconfigure it to suit a different worldview as some of the filmmakers on my list have done.

5 for the Day: Ruth Gordon

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Ruth Gordon
5 for the Day: Ruth Gordon

Though she had built up a very distinguished career in the theater and had appeared in a few films as a middle-aged woman, something seemed to click for Ruth Gordon, on screen at least, when she reached the age of seventy or so. We can’t know now what she was like on stage as Nora in A Doll’s House, as Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife, or as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, just three of her most conspicuous successes on stage. Theater critic Walter Kerr and theatrical grande dame Marian Seldes both said that Gordon’s Natasha in The Three Sisters was the best performance they’d ever seen, and it’s good to remember that she was up against Judith Anderson and Katharine Cornell in that fabled production, and that Natasha is not a leading role, but part of a Chekhov ensemble. Nor should it be forgotten that Gordon wrote, with her second husband Garson Kanin, some of George Cukor’s best films with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, including Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). This would be enough to place her in two different firmaments, but she went even further when she took up a film career in putative old age. Only Marie Dressler enjoyed the same elderly movie eminence; both Gordon and Dressler had decades of technical know-how to draw on in their latter-day film work, but it’s the unusual soul underlying their technique that made them connect so forcefully with audiences.

5 for the Day: Animals

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Animals
5 for the Day: Animals

No sooner had I finished reading Vicki Myron’s lovely if titularly overstated Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World when word came of a screen version in the works with Meryl Streep set to star. Hype moves so fast these days that there’s scarcely a chance to envision the adaptation that you would like to see. There is a lot of potential in the book’s premise, and I say that not just as the owner of a precocious two-year-old tabby (named Renko, after the main character in Martin Cruz Smith’s series of detective novels, beginning with Gorky Park). Dewey begins as a mythic origins tale with a kitten found in an Iowa library’s book depository on the coldest winter morning of the year, deepens into a bond between a cat and an owner who endures more than her share of health and family troubles, then broadens its scope into a twenty-year epic about the economic ravages inside the American Heartland. While a capable director and screenwriter could convey all of this, I fear the makers of Dewey will go for the cutesy tearjerking of Marley & Me—soften up the audience before landing the body-blows—as well as overplay the opposition to the shocking notion of a cat living in a library. Expect the shrill woman who threatens to walk her cow through town (given only a cursory mention in Myron’s book) to be elevated to supervillain status.

“Never work with animals or children,” W.C. Fields famously opined, but he had nothing to worry about. Movies about animals have been relatively few, and good movies about animals even fewer. Much of the reason, I think, is a reluctance or refusal to take animals on their own terms. Documentarians can plant down their cameras in the tall grass and wait (and whatever you do, don’t intervene on behalf of that poor gazelle), but dramatists rarely have that luxury. Of course I mean “luxury” facetiously: nature filmmakers typically endure innumerable hardships and risk injury or death, but that’s nothing from the narrow prism of a studio director pulling out his hair in frustration because the damn collie won’t hit her mark. Movie-lore is riddled with tales of uncooperative beasts causing all kinds of burdens, so that by the umpteenth take it’s understandable, the temptation, to just pack up and leave Timmy down that well. No, it’s become far easier to animate and anthropomorphize animals onscreen. Anything with penguins is virtually guaranteed a green-light; and if they can talk, so much the better.

Yet animals, for all their difficulties, can be enthrallingly cinematic. Animals have a spontaneity, a naturalism, a genuine screen presence. They can be protagonists or antagonists, the stars of the show or reliable scene-stealers. Some are reliable jokers; others have touching gravitas. While the verdict on Dewey will have to wait, there are still plenty of possibilities to consider for this post. Here are my five animal-themed movies:

5 for the Day: Terence Stamp

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Terence Stamp
5 for the Day: Terence Stamp

“What do you feel about your penis?” asks Terence Stamp, in his almost comically deep baritone voice, as a “sex therapist who operates on the edge of the law” in Bliss (1997). Not the easiest line of dialogue to utter with a straight face, and it must be said that Stamp and the whole film itself risks absurdity at every turn. Yet as he counsels Craig Sheffer, who has hit a sexual roadblock in his marriage to Sheryl Lee, Stamp has the cheeky confidence and the aplomb, not to mention the weathered erotic magnetism, to make Bliss into a surprisingly serious investigation into what it takes to create physical intimacy between two people. He has always been drawn to arty sex films, from a Laura Antonelli vehicle (The Divine Nymph {1975}) to Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which brazenly presents Stamp As Sex Object, the camera worshiping his compact body and small, round, exquisitely formed face, with its killer blue eyes flashing out over his largish nose and tiny, rosebud mouth. Repeated close-ups of Stamp’s crotch in Teorema basically bring about the total destruction of the bourgeoisie; politically, sexually and spiritually, Stamp is an icon of the most idealistic side of the sixties, a Gerard Philipe who’s willing to get naked, an amused and amusing narcissist who has cultivated a come-hither yet chilly mystique.

That mystique has had to endure many bad movies, alas. After his sixties heyday, it was an unhappy thing to see Stamp turning up in films as dreadful as Link (1986) and The Real McCoy (1993), not to mention even worse recent credits like My Boss’s Daughter (2003), where he is a figure of fun confronting jackass Ashton Kutcher. Actors can only do their best with what they are offered, of course, but Stamp seems as upset with these crass films as we are watching him in them. In his best work, he can be touching, gruesome, self-pitying, repellent, sensitive and inviting, and he is as vivid and tantalizing a camera subject as one of his 60s girlfriends, Julie Christie (they were teamed for an adaptation of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd {1967}, and their combined amatory presence nearly burned the screen to shreds, especially when he daintily undressed her with a phallic sword). It’s high time that someone rescued Stamp from the drek of his recent work; until then, let this serve as a reminder of his uncanny on-screen charisma.

5 for the Day: Glenda Jackson

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Glenda Jackson
5 for the Day: Glenda Jackson

Retired from stage and screen since 1992, when she entered into British politics and was voted Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate in the London borough of Camden, Glenda Jackson must be the only member of Parliament to have had her nipples suckled by Oliver Reed (then again, Reed did drink to excess, so who knows for sure?). Jackson’s film career took off when she won her first best actress Oscar for Women in Love (1970); her competition that year actually included Ali MacGraw in Love Story, so this first win is understandable, though her second best actress win, for a joyless sex comedy called A Touch of Class (1973), is much less explicable. Then again, Jackson’s stardom in the early seventies has its inexplicable sides: has any other actress made such an impact on screen by purveying nearly nothing but abrasive bad temper? In film after film, Jackson carped, sniped, bitched, moaned, barked and howled at her leading men and her audience, but there would be moments when she let us see glimpses of a wounded adolescent defensiveness in her moody, pockmarked face, with its mistrustful eyes and disagreeably pouting mouth, and at moments like these she could be touching, if the role required it.

5 for the Day: Van Heflin

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Van Heflin
5 for the Day: Van Heflin

Van Heflin never became a big star because he was too honest an actor. His range was too wide, so that he didn’t get typed during his most fruitful period, the 1940’s, and he was able to convey weakness and cowardice and general softness too well and too vividly; his lack of vanity probably worked against him. Raised in Oklahoma, Heflin began acting in the theater, and Katharine Hepburn championed him early on (he played Mike Connor on stage with her in The Philadelphia Story, but the starrier Jimmy Stewart got the movie role). In the early forties, he was signed to a contract at MGM and was assigned leads in second features and supporting roles in bigger films. Heflin recalled that the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, “once looked at me and said ’You will never get the girl at the end.’ So I worked on my acting.” He was usually on the outside of films looking in, never more affectingly than in the ballroom crash-up in Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949), where Heflin’s Charles goes from awkward wallflower to drunken rube in precise, helpless stages.

In his youth, Heflin was attractive in a rugged way, but he had unruly curly hair, and his smallish eyes, nose and mouth sat too close together under his large forehead. There was something sexy about his low, craggy voice, and Heflin knew it; he relaxed into his voice slowly as if it were an old, plush easy chair made for dispensing sour, clever lines. Heflin won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Johnny Eager (1942), but it was only after the war that he briefly came into his own as a character actor able to play womanizers or dim husbands with equal conviction. As he aged and put on a bit of weight, the good parts grew scarcer; there’s almost nothing worth noting in his sixties work, though he did bring a ragged urgency to the first Airport (1970) movie that shames its commercial slickness. He died of a heart attack shortly after Airport, and he’s in danger of being forgotten; there’s never been a Heflin biography. He wasn’t flashy. He served his roles, first and foremost. And he left behind a deeply felt body of work.

5 for the Day: Mia Farrow

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Mia Farrow
5 for the Day: Mia Farrow

It’s been close to twenty years since Mia Farrow did battle with her one-time boyfriend/boss Woody Allen, in actual law courts and in the even nastier courts of public opinion. She wrote an autobiography in 1997, What Falls Away, in which she described her life up to the point Allen started an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, which resulted in accusations on both sides that were so ugly that we’ve all made a kind of pact of forgetfulness so that we can go on seeing Allen’s movies. Farrow has continued to work as an actress, but in fairly obscure films. She turned up this year in Michel Gondry’s loopy Be Kind Rewind; at 63, she looked almost exactly the same as she had in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and it was a reminder that she has spent her whole life pursuing a dream of childhood, both in her compulsive adoption of children, many of whom have special needs, and her determination to keep herself childishly pure in looks and attitude. “She lived all alone in her own world,” said Bette Davis, observing a teenaged Farrow on the set of John Paul Jones (1959), which was directed by her father, John Farrow.

5 for the Day: Anne Bancroft

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Anne Bancroft
5 for the Day: Anne Bancroft

In 2002, I bought a ticket to a preview of Edward Albee’s Occupant, a play about the sculptor Louise Nevelson. I try to see any new Albee play, but I was particularly excited for this one because Anne Bancroft was playing the leading role; she hadn’t been on stage in New York for a number of years, so this was a kind of homecoming. Occupant is minor Albee, too tied to biographical details, and the audience was restless throughout, but Bancroft was in total control from the moment she walked out, her eyes twinkling behind sable eyelashes. Her style of acting was often too big for movies, especially as she got older, but in the theater her every outsized gesture commanded the space, and she had a seemingly total belief in what she was doing. Toward the end, as she did a lengthy monologue, a woman in the audience got up to leave. Suddenly, Bancroft dropped her grand, declaiming character and looked out at the woman. “Darling, you’re leaving?” she asked, in the purest Bronx accent. “Please, dear, please, I’m almost finished! Gimme a shot, would ya?” The woman continued out the door, as the audience laughed, and Bancroft shrugged, then instantly went back into her speech, as focused as ever.

5 for the Day: Lew Ayres

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Lew Ayres
5 for the Day: Lew Ayres

My grandmother was not much of a moviegoer, but when I mentioned Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), her face lit up with recognition. “I saw that picture! At the end, doesn’t he reach out for a butterfly?” Her hand reached out, and she mimed the famous last scene. I nodded. “I can’t believe I remember that!” she said. “I can see it in my head, just what it looked like.” A whole generation was haunted by Lew Ayres reaching out for that butterfly in the final scene of one of the worthier Best Picture Oscar winners, but Ayres himself suffered for taking the lesson of that anti-World War One movie to heart. At the onset of World War Two, Ayres declared himself a conscientious objector and suffered savage criticism from all sides. He served honorably in the war as a medic, but refused to put himself in any situation where he would have to kill another human being.