Do I Worry When Sam Goes to the Video Store?
Last night my husband, Sam, went to the video
store to get "The
Sixth Sense," a favorite of ours. We had agreed that if
he couldn't get it, he'd bring home "Rosemary's
Baby." We were in the mood for a bit of domestic horror,
a movie that can scare your pants off while avoiding decapitation,
mutilation, blood, or gore. We wanted that feeling you get when
you think you see something out of the corner of your eye late at
night, alone in the house. There's a lot of that in "The
Sixth Sense" but what makes the movie fascinating is the
"Gotcha" at the end. Through the movie Bruce Willis, a
therapist (now that's a stretch) tries to help a young boy face
his fears. Willis thinks the child is hallucinating, and it's late
in the film before he realizes that the boy actually does see ghosts
and needs some help figuring out how to cope with his "sixth
sense." It's not until the final few minutes that we realize
that Willis himself is dead. Early on the boy had told him that
dead people don't know they're dead...they see only what they want
to see. So while much of the movie is scary, it's also incredibly
sad and very cleverly done.
Baby" has that same "What's wrong with this picture?"
feel to it. The apartment building Rosemary and her husband move
into (and feel lucky to get) seems a bit creepy, but maybe it just
needs a bit of paint and new curtains. The next-door neighbors are
well-meaning...or are they? The plot moves fairly quickly from Rosemary's
uneasiness to her flat-out horror. But the rest of us are still
not sure: was she impregnated by the Devil or is she hallucinating?
No one seems to believe her, not even her doctor. In the final scene
we see her reaction to her newborn (after realizing the child hadn't
died as she had been told). She says, "What have you done to
his eyes?" We can picture the infant as clearly as if she had
held him up for us to see, and we know for certain he's the Devil's
As both "The
Sixth Sense" and "Rosemary's
Baby" were checked out last night, Sam came home with
Box," a horror of another kind. "Chinese
Box" is two hours of Jeremy Irons longing for one woman
(without a facial scar) while tracking another (with a facial
scar) through the back streets of Hong Kong. Jeremy's character
is dying of leukemia, and the Chinese doctor offers no treatment.
Maybe they both hope the end would come quickly and the movie
would be over, but no such luck. At some point, Ruben Blades appears.
He plays the guitar, hangs out in Irons's apartment, and accompanies
him through the back alleys and bars of Hong Kong. Jeremy Irons
is a fascinating actor, but not a warm one. It's hard to imagine
anyone hanging out with him, especially Ruben Blades.
Another time Sam came home with "Henry
Fool," a movie so bad that remembering it makes me feel
slightly nauseated. Parker Posey, an actress I admire tremendously,
held my interest for about twenty minutes. After that, it was
like witnessing news footage of a natural disaster or an airplane
crash: you don't want to watch but you just can't tear yourself
away. Part of the problem is the plot: it's awfully hard to make
a movie about writers. And this one has two writers: a seductive
but terrifically bad one and a sad-sack good one. Unfortunately,
they look about the same hunched over a typewriter.
Fool" has no characters a viewer can identify with. Parker
Posey's brother (the sad-sack writer), bullied at work and at home,
remains so blank, it is hard to feel sympathy. Though the actor
who plays him, James Urbaniek, has lines to say, the character comes
across as the emotional equivalent of a mute. That he ends up as
a world-famous author, winning prizes and living in a Manhattan
hotel, is simply unbelievable. The bad writer (the drifter Henry
Fool, played by Thomas Jay Ryan) appears on the scene all too suddenly.
He bullies James Urbaniek about his writing and seduces Parker Posey.
He is so unlikable, it is depressing to think that any woman would
throw herself at him, for any reason. In fact, the whole movie is
depressing, even the sets...there always seems to be a faucet dripping
somewhere and the rooms look dank. Did I mention that the mother(played
by Maria Porter) kills herself in the tub? Then James Urbaniek drags
her corpse out to the sidewalk. I have no idea why she kills herself
(I think we are supposed to think that she, like Parker Posey, has
been attracted to Henry Fool). I have no idea, either, why James
Urbaniek drags the corpse outside. I don't mind being baffled by
characters or angered by them, but at some point I have to connect,
and I couldn't do that with anyone in Hartley's film.
Fool" is the only movie I've seen recently that is a
triple threat: bad writing, bad acting, bad directing. Here's
how truly bad this one was: James Urbaniek is now a pizza-delivery
boy in a Budweiser commercial, and probably glad to get the work.
You see where I'm going with this? Sam's spontaneity
is a valuable attribute, but not in a video-rental store. Spontaneity
leads to "Henry
Fool," to "Chinese
Box," to movies that deserve to be left on the shelf
for other unsuspecting renters. Because rentals are so inexpensive
compared with a night out at the movies, a lot of viewers, who
would read movie reviews and ask friends for their opinions before
splurging, simply walk into a video-rental store and get whatever's
handy. But if you care what you see, wouldn't you put some thought
into this? It's about fall-backs. Sam and I had thought one alternate
video-rental choice was an adequate back-up plan. Maybe because
my mother was Swiss, and I tend in general to live life in alphabetical
order, I now insist on an expanded back-up plan, with several
alternate choices. This can make an ordinary non-Swiss person
like Sam fidgety. But I am slowly convincing him: if you care
what you see, you need to plan in advance.
Here's my fail-safe Swiss method: first and foremost,
you'll want to have several movies in mind. I write them down,
but that's just my rigidity and precision at work. If you're having
one of those lazy Saturday afternoons and nothing comes to mind,
try thinking of themes. For example, you'd be surprised how many
wonderful movies have been made about lawyers: "Adam's
for the Prosecution," "Anatomy
of a Murder." The lawyers in these movies are lawyers
as we wish them to be: savvy, committed, with flaws and foibles,
like the rest of us. Even a sense of humor (very unlawyer-like).
Or sports: "Major
League" (baseball), "The
Best of Times" (football), "Hoosiers"
(basketball). The great thing about good sports movies is that
they're all the same no matter the sport: the team is down and
out, the team struggles mightily, the team wins the big game.
What could be more comforting?
Another approach is to go for originals and sequels.
There are three versions of "Little
Women," and I like all of them. The first has the best
Jo of all time Katherine Hepburn. Some people are born
to certain roles, and Hepburn's lanky, edgy Jo is perfect. But
the second version has an ensemble cast that's very, very good:
June Allyson's Jo is a little coy for my taste, but there's Elizabeth
Taylor's Amy and Spring Byington as Marmee and Leon Ames as the
father and Peter Lawford as Laurie. And best of all there's Margaret
O'Brien, one of the few child actors who wasn't just a short adult...nobody
dies better than Margaret O'Brien. Overall, Version Two has a
perfect post-World War II glow about it. As for third version,
I like it in spite of myself. In its updated and revised plot,
Marmee saves Beth's life when she is first ill, not the doctor,
and Susan Sarandon as Marmee makes some '70s feminist statements
about what women should aspire to. But I liked it because the
sets seemed so right. That may seem like an odd reason, but sometimes
the sound-stage approach of the older films can detract from the
overall effect. In Version Three of "Little Women" snow
really looked like snow, and the rooms really did seem to be lit
by dim candles.
Then there's "A
Star Is Born." There are three of those and only the first
two count. In the first version, Fredric March as Norman Maine wades
into the surf when he realizes he's standing in the way of his wife's
movie career. The wife, meanwhile, is in the kitchen, happily whipping
up dinner for the two of them. I was just a kid when I saw this,
and I wanted to scream at the wife to get out of the kitchen and
get down to the beach and save this man! The second version starred
Judy Garland and James Mason, and this one makes it pretty clear
how an actor, even someone as great as Mason, can be left behind
by a talent like Garland. The inner workings of the studio are spelled
out, too...the capricious way names are changed to make them look
better on a marquee, the fun of being one of a group of contract
players, and what happens when one partner is on the way up, while
the other is on the way down. The third (and I hope the final) version
starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I can rest my case
here. The whole point of a movie like "A Star Is Born"
is to trace the evolution of a relationship, to track what happens
when an older, established star marries a younger, inexperienced,
tentative newcomer. Maybe this movie would work if Kris played the
younger, tentative newcomer, because it doesn't matter what costume
Barbra wears or what character she plays, she's still Barbra. (People
have said the same about Garland, but Garland's persona is vulnerable,
tentative, uncertain, in need of everyone's even the audience's
protection.) And the suicide scene is so bizarre: Kristofferson
drives his car off a cliff while drinking beer. Can you see either
Fredric March or James Mason swilling cheap beer while barreling
down the highway? I don't think so, because March and Mason portray
"actors" who adore themselves (and their protégés);
they wouldn't kill themselves in a way that would destroy their
looks or bring their wives any more grief than their deaths already
Star Is Born
And then there are series like The
Thin Man movies (you could start with "The
Thin Man," but they're all good.) And the Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers musicals. (You could start with "Shall
We Dance?" but, again, they're all terrific.) These are
movies you want when your life is too connected: too many cell phones
and laptops, and e-mail from people you don't know. These films
show us a life most of us never knew: people who have money and
don't seem to feel guilty about spending it on fabulous apartments
and great clothes. People who dress for dinner, who smoke unfiltered
cigarettes and drink martinis and look good even when they're hung
over (there is no one cuter than Myrna Loy pretending to be hung
over). Or on a more somber note, John Wayne from the beginning ("Stagecoach")
to the end ("The
Shootist") a way to study a man who gets old but
never changes. The kid from "Stagecoach"
gets heavier and adds some wrinkles, but he continues to represent
a West that never existed but seems real anyway, a West of clear
contrast between good and evil where good miraculously prevails.
So much of life seems random; renting videos doesn't
have to be.
VIDEOS DRAWN ON IN THIS ESSAY
Sixth Sense," M. Night Shyamalan, director. Starring Bruce
Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette. Run time: 107 minutes.
Walt Disney Home Videos, 2000 (theatrical release 1999).
Baby," Roman Polanski, director. Starring John Cassavetes,
Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon, Ralph Bellamy. Run time: 134 minutes. Paramount,
1991 (theatrical release 1968).
Box," Wayne Wang, director. Starring Jeremy Irons, Gong
Li, Ruben Blades. Run time: 99 minutes. Vidmark/Trimark, 1999 (theatrical
Fool," Hal Hartley, director. Starring Parker Posey, James
Urbaniek, Thomas Jay Ryan. Run time: 137 minutes. Vidmark/Trimark,
l998 (theatrical release 1998).
Rib," George Cukor, director. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine
Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, David Wayne. Run time: 101 minutes.
Warner Studios, 2000 (theatrical release 1949).
for the Prosecution," Billy Wilder, director. Starring
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester.
Run time: 116 minutes. MGM/UA Studios, 1999 (theatrical release
of a Murder,"Otto Preminger, director. Starring James Stewart,
Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell. Run time: 160 minutes.
Columbia/Tristar Studios, 1989 (theatrical release 1959).
League," David S. Ward, director. Starring Tom Berenger,
Corbin Bernsen, Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, Bob Uecker. Run time:
107 minutes. Paramount Studios, 1997 (theatrical release 1989).
Best of Times," Roger Spottiswoode, director. Starring
Robin Williams, Kurt Russell, Pamela Reed. Run time: 104 minutes.
Vidmark/Trimark, 1999 (theatrical release 1985).
David Anspaugh, director. Starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hersey,
Dennis Hopper. Run time: 114 minutes. Family Home Entertainment,
2000 (theatrical release 1986).
Women," George Cukor, director. Joan Bennett, Spring Byington,
Katharine Hepburn. MGM/UA, 1985. Run time: 116 minutes. (theatrical
Women," Mervyn LeRoy, director. Starring June Allyson,
Peter Lawford, Margaret O'Brien. Run time: 122 minutes. MGM/UA Family
Entertainment, 1995(theatrical release 1949).
Women," Gillian Armstrong, director. Starring Susan Sarandon,
Claire Danes, Winona Ryder. Run time: 118 minutes. Columbia/Tristar,
1995 (theatrical release 1994).
Star Is Born," William Wellman, director. Starring Janet
Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou. Run time: 110
minutes. Direct Source, 2000 (theatrical release 1937).
Star Is Born," George Cukor, director. Starring Judy Garland,
James Mason, Jack Carson. Run time: 175 minutes. Warner Home Video,
2000 (theatrical release 1954).
Star Is Born," Frank Pierson, director. Starring Barbra
Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Busey. Run time: 140 minutes.
Warner Studios, 1992 (theatrical release 1976).
John Ford, director. Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine,
John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell. Run time: 97 minutes. Warner Home
Video, 1991 (theatrical release 1939).
Shootist," Don Siegal, director. Starring John Wayne, Lauren
Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart. Run time: 100 minutes. IDG Books
Worldwide, 1998 (theatrical release 1976).
Thin Man," W. S. Van Dyke, director. Starring William Powell,
Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan. Run time: 90 minutes. MGM/UA Home
Video, 1998 (theatrical release 1934).
We Dance," Mark Sandrich, director. Starring Fred Astaire,
Ginger Rodgers, Edward Everett Horton. Run time: 109 minutes. Turner
Home Video, 1999 (theatrical release 1937).
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