Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jacob Julius Garfinkle (1913-1952)

I am about a week late, but I still wanted to commemorate the birthday of one of my favorite screen performers, John Garfield, known to his friends as Julie.  Born on March 4th as Jacob Julius Garfinkle, Garfield would have been 95 this year. One of the earliest practitioners of the Method in Hollywood, Garfield is the link between the "city boys," Cagney and Bogart, and the later Method boys, Clift, Brando, and Dean.  Often called Hollywood's "first rebel," Garfield remains sadly unknown by most people, even more serious cinephiles.  Of course, this is related to Garfield's untimely demise, brought on by the stress of the Blacklist and his being hounded by HUAC.  

One of the first actors to have his own production company, Garfield was coming into his own as an actor after getting out of a rather stifling contract with Warner Bros. when the Blacklist hit him.  A committed progressive, Garfield was always sympathetic to leftist causes, and though he was said not to be a Communist Party member, he was victimized by his associations.  In the end, it is believed that the Committee wanted him to turn in his own wife who was a Party member. He did not cave to the Committee, but the strain was too much for his career, marriage, and heart.  

Warner Home Video has promised that there is finally a John Garfield  box set (including 6 titles) coming to DVD this year.  Hopefully, it will include Pride of the Marines and The Breaking Point, neither of which have ever been available on home video, and which contain what I feel are his best performances.  In the meantime many of his most well-known films are already available on DVD.  These include Force of Evil, Body and Soul (Oscar Nomination for Best Actor), The Postman Always Rings Twice (a loan-out to MGM), and Humoresque.

Rest in peace, Julie.

Here's a link to a nice a tribute website as well as the most recent biography, Robert Nott's Her Ran All the Way published by Limelight Editions a few years back.

"One Blonde. One Brunette. One Summer They'll Never Forget."

Summer Lovers (1982, Randal Kleiser)

After making the highly profitable Grease and The Blue Lagoon, director Randal Kleiser was in a position to make his most personal project, the self-penned Summer Lovers, said to be inspired by his frequent visits to the gorgeous Greek Isles, particularly Santorini.  It's hard to blame Kleiser for choosing to make a film in Greece and filling the screen with lots of beautiful, unclothed bodies.  Seems like the perfectly sensible thing to do if a studio's offering you the money to do it.  Unfortunately, something went wrong. Released in the summer of 1982, Summer Lovers sank like a stone at the box office and was savaged by critics.  

It is admittedly a very a lightweight project,  but, for my money, Summer Lovers is a very entertaining and pleasant 99 minutes of pure escapism.  I certainly don't think Kleiser was aspiring for greatness, but what he does here, he does very well.  At the same time, I would have liked to have seen Kleiser take more chances with several aspects of the narrative.  He presents us with three very attractive and likeable lead actors (Peter Gallagher, Daryl Hannah, and Valerie Quennessen) and puts them in very attractive locations.  The minimal plot revolves around young American couple Cathy (Hannah) and Michael (Gallagher) on holiday on Santorini who become romantically involved with visiting French archaeologist Lina (Quennessen) and share a highly satisfying summer as friends, lovers, and companions.  

All of it is done in a very non-threatening way--the women are never shown making love with each other--and it is all very skillfully shot, and edited, and scored.  The late, great Basil Poledouris (Conan) provides an uncharacteristically electronic, new age-style score not unlike something Vangelis would compose and the appropriately upbeat soundtrack includes the likes of Michael Sembello (giving us a humorously on-the-nose '80s theme song), Depeche Mode, Elton John, Heaven 17, Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters, Plastic Bertrand, Nona Hendryx, Chicago, Stephen Bishop, Lime, Prince, and others.

The film has an interesting structure as it first prominently features Gallagher as he rather inexplicably tires of Hannah and falls under the spell of the more mysterious Quennessen. After Hannah learns of the affair, she surprises herself and her man and goes to the other woman. The women bond and now it is Gallagher who is threatened. This is where the movie is at its most satisfying but while Kleiser has Cathy and Lina become much closer than we see either of them get to Michael, he does not allow them to go further, at least onscreen. This is unfortunate because the Cathy/Lina relationship has the potential to be much more interesting.  Instead Kleiser moves the film into the realm of male fantasy in which Gallagher becomes the roommate and lover of two beautiful and intelligent women.  

In an interesting 1982 interview with Stephen Brunt of Canada's Globe and Mail, Kleiser says that he was inspired by French comedies when conceiving the film. "I like the kind of romantic comedies that they make in France that are about relationships that change."  To be fair to Kleiser regarding the underexplored elements of the relationships, he was hamstrung by studio restrictions.  According to the same interview, Kleiser made the film at the smaller Filmways studio because the other studios were afraid of the racier elements of the story and Filmways was the only one willing to allow Kleiser to have all three principals living under the same roof. In the Los Angeles Times, Kleiser told Dale Pollock that he purposely did not go further with the portrayal of the women's relationship.  "In order to get across this spirit of freedom, I had to be careful not to turn off a large segment of the audience that couldn't cope with that aspect."

Amazingly, Gallagher has mostly been derogatory towards this film over the years, although he has softened his stance more recently. Look at the promotional photos that adorn this article and watch the film and I think you will agree that Gallagher was smart to take on the role and equally wise to stop complaining about it.  There was an amusing brief blurb in either Entertainment Weekly or Premiere about ten years ago that mentioned that Gallagher had visited Santorini for the first time since he shot Summer Lovers.  He apparently was flanked by his wife and mother-in-law, leading locals to observe not only that he had returned to the isles, but that he once again had the companionship of two women.  I wish I still had that clipping because I cannot recall the exact details. 

One of several films to explore same-sex relationships in 1982--Personal Best, Making Love, and Lianna were the others--Summer Lovers is particularly perplexing in its hesitancy to take the next step if only because director Kleiser is the only openly gay director of the four films.  I realize I am simplifying the issue quite a bit, but I find the irony interesting nonetheless.  As much as I adore Quennessen, and her character, Lina, I still find myself puzzled by Michael's disinterest in Hannah's Cathy. Hannah has her share of detractors, but I think she is especially good at projecting a genuine sweetness and endearing naivete.  Here, she is at her most charming and beautiful (Janet Maslin thought "bland") and she adores Michael, yet he runs off at the first chance.  

As for Quennessen, she probably comes off the best of the three in terms of performance, in large part, because her character is exotic and has the most mystery about her, but I think she is even more beguiling in the earlier French Postcards.  In her review of that film, Maslin calls Quennessen an "irresistible French gamine" and I agree with her. 

Unfortunately, the young actress retired prematurely from the screen after Summer Lovers to concentrate on raising a family.  She was rather revealing during a press junket in New York for the film, which was quoted in a Globe and Mail article at the time.  "When they called for the movie, I had to stop all what I'm doing.  These Americans, they expect you drop everything for a movie.  In France, we never get involved in the actor myth.  We try to get close to the actors we work with.  You can't get this close to American actors.  They get so wrapped up in what they do that they ask themselves afterwards, 'Who am I?'"  Her life would end tragically in a car accident in 1989, making her few film performances even more poignant.  

In a smaller role, is the fine Dutch actor Hans van Tongeren.  He plays Jan, the only person who seriously vies for either Cathy or Lina.  Lina stays with him for a time, but is eventually drawn back to Cathy and Michael. Apparently, van Tongeren was vacationing on Santorini at the time of filming and was spotted by Hannah.  She recognized the young actor from his work in Paul Verhoeven's Spetters, for which he had deservedly received much acclaim and persuaded him to join the production.  I'm not sure if the character was written for him or if the part was ready and waiting to be filled.  In any event, van Tongeren's appearance is bittersweet because the role is intriguing, but rather small, and because this would be one of his final roles.  Sadly, van Tongeren committed suicide in August of 1982 just around the time that Summer Lovers opened.  He is not able to make so much of an impression here, but in Spetters it is apparent that he was a major talent.  Verhoeven who is clearly haunted by his death speaks very highly of van Tongeren in this biography.  According the Dutch Wikipedia entry for van Tongeren, the Dutch media reported that he had spent time in psychiatric wards and was perhaps too close to some of his roles, something that is particularly resonant when one thinks of his character in Spetters.

In filming on the islands of Santorini, Delos, Mykonos, and Crete without really acknowledging all the island hopping within the film's narrative, Kleiser creates something of a Greek mega-island.  Visitors to the islands will find the ease with which Cathy and Michael see all the sites that they do, quite impossible to duplicate in reality.  This does not deter, however, from the great compliment Kleiser and his crew pay to the islands by virtue of the film's sumptuous cinematography.  This is one of the best cinematic advertisements for tourism that I have ever seen--I'm living proof as are many of the members of this forum.

In making the film on the islands, Kleiser sought to portray the easygoing, open lifestyle he witnessed there, especially amongst the many young people who congregated there in the summer and camped out on the beaches.  In a New York Times article that appeared as the film was opening he spoke of the magic of the islands, "a mecca for young people from all over the world.  You see cultures exchanging information, love affairs happening.  And the Greeks are so honest. Campers left their backpacks in the town square and went off to the beach for the day. When they came back at night, nothing had been stolen."  In the film, one gets hints at the sense of possibility and discovery on the islands and the ephemeral nature of it all, but it's not fully explored.  In the interview with the Globe and Mail, Kleiser mentions doing "research screenings" with many young people in the audience and determining "whether they were with it or not."  By the end of these screenings, the film had been cut from 130 minutes to 99.  I wonder if some of the lost material would have supplied the film with more grist or nuance with regards to the aforementioned special qualities of the islands.

At one point, Kleiser told Pollock the script was to include five separate plots to be joined in the manner that his good friend George Lucas had done in American Graffiti. Ultimately, however, Kleiser was "fascinated" by "the couple's sexual and emotional liberation" and shifted entirely to their story.  Before writing the script, Kleiser screened "numerous French films to capture the elusive tone of subtle sexuality."  The idea of a multi-narrative script is intriguing, but rather than adding more characters, I think the film would probably be best served if Kleiser had turned his focus entirely onto one young character--male or female--and followed him or her from the moment of arrival on the island to departure, showing us the relationships and discoveries as they happened.

While Kleiser does not adequately explore the potential lesbian romance, he does not skimp on the onscreen nudity by the principals or the countless extras seen on nude beaches.  If this movie were made today, I think it would be more daring in its approach to the relationship of the women, however I have a hard time believing it would contain nearly the amount of nudity that the film does.  This points to the odd "progression" that Hollywood films have made over the years. They have become overwhelmingly prudish with regards to sex and nudity, but upped the quotient on toilet humor and violence. By the same token, mainstream film and television have become much more tolerant of gay content and characters.  Although, Summer Lovers disappoints in this regard, it must be praised for its non-exploitative, rather European treatment of onscreen nudity--much of it is of the casual, everyday variety, which is very refreshing to see in light of the current dearth of such content in mainstream cinema.  

I have briefly mentioned the music, which I must once again praise. The film was said to be highly marketed on the then nascent MTV and it must be said that this is appropriate as Kleiser's soundtrack is very adeptly compiled collection of then-current synth pop and dance tunes--unfortunately much of the music, including the majority of Poledouris' fine score, is underrepresented on the official, now out-of-print Warner Bros. LP.  For a time it was the only way to way to obtain Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" on U.S. shores, an indication that the soundtrack was a bit more prescient and cutting edge than it appears now.  

Poledouris' rather brief, hauntingly beautiful score, though, really raises the film to a higher level in several cases.  I think, particularly of the moments when Michael first sees Lina at the beach at Matala and then when they later go swimming together to the cave.  These scenes are without dialogue, containing only Poledouris' lovely "Sea Cave" cue, enchanting locales, and longing glances in close-up.  The film may have its share of fluff and shallowness, but these brief moments, for me, are what I think French critics Jean Epstein and Louis Delluc meant by photogenie.  I have no doubt this interpretation has something to do with my infatuation with Ms. Quennessen.
I must credit this very attractive fan site for most of the Summer Lovers visuals seen in this article.


Summer Lovers, Complete Songs and Score (Ripped from DVD).

Some alternate versions of songs appear at the end of the album. I've given names to the score tracks aside from the 2 that appeared on the original album ("Sea Cave," "Search for Lina"). Cobbled together from a variety of sources, the Basil Poledouris score and otherwise unavailable songs are ripped from DVD and have not been further manipulated (dialogue and sound f/x included).  The quality is rough on a few of these tracks, but keep in mind that a few only appeared as B-sides and/or on the original soundtrack album. I did not do the original vinyl rips so thanks to those who did the legwork. I've upgraded most of the tracks that are available in other places: 

Monday, March 3, 2008

In Defense of: Richard Lester

On a very happy note, another very special Superman collection has been released by the fine folks at Film Score Monthly, in this case a limited edition box set containing the scores for all four Christopher Reeve films and the 1988 cartoon series.  It was another opportunity for director Richard Lester to speak about his experiences on the Superman films, but, unfortunately, as was the case with the 2006 DVD set, Lester chose not to participate.

Interestingly, while one of the documentaries on the Superman DVD box set contains a credit explaining that Lester could not be tracked down to contribute despite their efforts, he did grace The Onion with an insightful interview in late 2007.  Tellingly he gave the interviewer nothing when the topic of Superman II  and the Donner Cut was broached.  "I didn't know it was recut," Lester said. "I read about it once.  I've never seen it.  I don't know anything about it."  I respect Lester's desire to not get into a schoolyard fight with another director, but I wish that he would say some words in his defense. 

As a fan of most of the Reeve Superman films, even III, as well as Lester's oeuvre, I've really hoped to hear him speak about his experiences on the first three films.  I'm sure I am not the only one to cringe every time I read some insipid message on a fan site, disparaging the work of "Dickie Lester" on Superman II and Superman III.  It's amazing to me how much of a beating Lester has taken in the last few years as the cries for a  Donner Cut of Superman II have risen from the fans and then been graciously answered by Warner Home Video.  In the process, Donner has been lionized while Lester is subjected to countless cheap shots from people who seem to have no knowledge of the man's career before he "ruined" the Superman franchise.  

I love Donner's original Superman: The Movie and I enjoy much of his contributions to Superman II, however I really dislike the, frankly, childish attitude he displays on the commentary for his Superman II cut--he will not acknowledge Lester by name--I think he claims to have forgotten it--and is generally quite condescending and smirky whenever the subject of Lester arises.  I think that Donner was the better choice for the Superman franchise, but I think Lester did a more than commendable job on both Superman II  and III.  On its own, I believe the latter to be a smart and consistently entertaining comic book film.  I even like Richard Pryor in this film--he still cracks me up with lines like the one he offers the woman who gives him the botched Kryptonite, "What the hell am I afraid of?  I'm from Earth." The film's chief offense, of course, was that it came after Superman and Superman II, which were so effectively serious and mythic in tone. However, I admire Lester and screenwriters David and Leslie Newman for attempting a new approach to the material by injecting a little social realism into the proceedings and introducing the charming and lovely Lana Lang (very nicely essayed by Annette O'Toole) who actually falls for Clark over Superman.

In previous years, Lester was more forthcoming about his Superman experiences.  In Andrew Yule's career-spanning The Man Who "Framed" the Beatles, Lester makes clear that he was heavily pursued by the Salkinds to direct first, Superman: The Movie, which he declined, and then Superman II, which he also declined more than once.  Most tellingly, and rarely ever repeated afterwards, he says that Guy Hamilton,  who was originally slated to direct the first film, was brought onto Superman II and then departed before Lester was brought back on.  Another similar story says that Donner refused the Salkinds first, Hamilton was offered the job, and then Warner Bros. nixed Hamilton in favor of Lester.  At any rate, Lester ultimately decided to finish the job.  

As for his contributions to the first film, as uncredited producer, most accounts have credited him with suggesting that production be halted on Superman II so that the crew could properly address the technical problems afflicting the first film and ensure that it was finished as close to the original schedule as possible.  Secondly, in tandem with this development, Lester is commonly credited with suggesting that the filmmakers steal the original ending for Superman II and insert it at the end of Superman: The Movie.  However, on their commentary track for Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, Donner and Creative Consultant Tom Mankiewicz take full credit for these developments.

As to their relationship on the first film, Donner says that at first he was wary of Lester on set, but was soon assured by Lester that he was no threat.  "From then on," Donner said, "it was a pleasure. The guy was a big help and I really liked him." Throughout the production of the first film, Lester went out of his way to deflect credit and avoid publicity, notably snapping at a journalist who noticed a chair with his name on it and tried to get a story out of it.  To the idea of receiving a production credit, Lester told producer Spengler, "It would be unfair to you because you really did produce the movie, and although I helped all I could I wouldn't dream of taking a producer's credit.  And it might start raising questions in people's minds about Donner.  And this is Donner's film." 

Known for his knack for "getting away with it," that is shooting quickly and efficiently, Lester was thrown for a loop when he saw the slower pace at which Donner worked.  This is one place in the narrative where Lester takes something of a shot at Donner.  He relates the story of a scene with Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine on a mountain road designed to last forty seconds of screen time, which was being rehearsed as dark clouds approached the filming area.  

Writes Yule, "Unwilling to shoot until the light was perfect, Donner decided to wait until the cloud had passed.  Instead a ferocious storm broke out that lasted for three solid days, during which nothing was shot.  Lester was stunned.  He knew he would have had five takes in the can before the first cloud had reached them, and if for any reason he was still unhappy he would have shot a couple in cloud."

As for the quality of the two Superman IIs, I love having the Donner Cut, but I can say that it has certainly not supplanted the Lester Cut as my version of choice.  I think that had Donner had a chance to properly finish the film in 1979, it very well would have been a different story. As it is, the performances, from Margot Kidder and especially Reeve,  are more mature in the Lester Cut. I realize it is blasphemous to say in the Superman fan community, but I really think the de-powering scene with Susannah York is more effective than the one with Marlon Brando primarily because Reeve's Superman, as written in the Donner Cut, comes off as petulant and whiny, not the Superman we have seen up until that point in either film.  In the Lester Cut, when he tells his mother that he loves Lois, it is simple and to the point, but it very much communicates the gravity of the moment and has always moved me.  As for the scene when Clark reveals his true identity, the Donner Cut gives us a screen test of an intriguing scene, but which, obviously does not have the spit and polish of its Lester counterpart. More importantly, the Lester interpretation, complete with pink bear, is appropriately tender and convincing thanks to the superb interplay of Reeve and Kidder, and writing which is consistent with the characters as we have known them up until then.  

I'm quite sure Donner would have re-conceived and re-shot these scenes differently if he'd had the chance.  As presently constituted, his scenes have an inconsistent feel, which, I think, is due to the fact that the actors, particularly Reeve, had not yet perfected their interpretations of their characters.  As has been amply documented, most of these scenes were shot in a crunch to accommodate the schedules of stars Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.  As for the much-discussed endings, I think Donner and his editor Michael Thau really should have bitten the bullet and used Lester's ending complete with "memory-loss" kiss, a scene which once again features some of the best performances of Reeve and Kidder in the entire series.  But, including that scene would have been tantamount to admitting that Lester had actually done something right on the film.

Peter Tonguette has a couple of good essays on Lester online, including this one that focuses on the Superman films.