Saturday, August 27, 2011

Swing Time: "No Cuffs!"

Fred Astaire was born in the last year of the 19th century. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we pause for a moment to consider Swing Time——one of his greatest achievements——on its 75th anniversary.

The big assessments all are available to read: Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book; John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films; Hannah Hyman’s Fred and Ginger. There you can read about George Stevens and Howard Lindsay and all the formal calibrations and comparisons that are the world of film studies.

For myself, one question stuck in my head: What does Swing Time offer us in the 21st century?

Well, it is stunningly fresh in so many ways. It sweeps us into lush monochrome beauty, offering a respite from the glare of the colors of real life. The absurd storyline is not alien in the age of Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, not in plot points per se but in plot probability: man’s friends waylaid him from getting married because they don’t want him to leave the act, and twice—–not once but twice——important things happen because characters aren't CERTAIN that men’s morning trousers SHOULDN'T have cuffs. (And that rang in my head as "No cuffs!" a cousin of the immortal "No capes" from Edna Mode in The Incredibles.)

Fred’s first entrance as Lucky Garnett in full wedding suit regalia sets up the distinctive tone for our time together. His uncanny ease in formal attire never loses its power: authority of place and time, conviction of character, and an understanding of the tools of his trade of dancing wrapped in genuine nonchalance. His waistcoat, top hat and spats are his second skin, and his understanding of this gives us all permission to simply enjoy the visual beauty of the lines of his exquisite suits rather than being put off by them.

Calling Judd Apatow, Jon Lucas, et al

No one is watching Swing Time for the story, but it has charms to offer the 2011 viewer.

Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) has a best friend, Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore), which makes him a rich man in the important ways. But it’s 1936 and people are still reeling from the Depression.

The boys in the act take the cash Lucky gambled from them, but that doesn’t stop him. He wants to “go to New York” to make his fortune so that he can marry his fiancee. With no money for a ticket he hops a freight train. Pop runs along the train with a suitcase of all their clothes. It bursts open and they lose everything but a toothbrush. But since this is not a drama, they keep laughing. That’s part of the fantasy and the kind of "guy zaniness" people liked in The Hangover.  In New York, they will have to talk their way into an apartment, and then Lucky tries to gamble a tuxedo off of a mark so that he go to the dance audition with Penny Carrol (Ginger Rogers). This ease in the face of serious issues——being broke——pulls you in. Yes, I want to have that much chutzpah and courage in the face of economic strain.

La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance
To try to capture the songs and the dance of Swing Time in words is a little painful: It earthbounds what lives on a celestial plain of motion and soundscape. But words (and YouTube) are the best we have to share the experience of this piece of art.

Pick Yourself Up: The most exuberant of the duo’s dances, perfectly punctuated by the flare of Rogers’s biased-cut dress. Astaire’s sheer lightness of movement creates a visual definition of “joyous” that never has been topped. The advice to “dust yourself, start all over again” is welcome to all ages at any age. The dance and the songs spark with optimism and confidence.

The Way You Look Tonight: The great nondanced song from the ultimate song-and-dance man. Its opening lines are in imprinted into the psyche of several generations. I love that Penny is not waitin' on no man, she’s going on with the details of life, such as touching up the dye job on her hair. Astaire needs only to sit and sing to exude his considerable charisma.

Waltz in Swing Time: One of the great orchestral pieces with big, pendulous declarative riffs which Astaire and Rogers dance around, between, amidst.

A Fine Romance: I love the snow. I love the fur coats. I love the inside joke of a “fine romance with no kisses,” given Astaire’s dislike of onscreen kissing. He said that his lovemaking onscreen was in dance. Oh yes.

Bojangles of Harlem
: Fred and his three shadows. Another song with a bracing beat and an imaginative chorus line sequence. While a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as many have pointed out the flashy jacket is Sportin’ Life, not Bill who dressed very plainly. The challenge for some today is the blackface.

Never Gonna Dance: Even if you’d never read that this is considered the pinnacle of the Astaire/Rogers art, you would know it after one viewing. (Click here for proof.) More accessible and less fussy than Top Hat’s "Cheek to Cheek," it actually is more sophisticated and “deeper” in how it tells the whole story of “boy meets girl/loses girl/boy is crestfallen” in six exquisite minutes with a spectrum of moods, steps, and rhythms amid twinkling Art Deco splendor. Rogers’ gown is stunning: a simple satin slip dress with rhinestones crossing under the bust and across the bare back. When Rogers starts to walk away midpoint, Astaire pulls her back, just like the audience wants him too. Then the motion up the stairs to the big finish, with an amazing series of fast pirouettes from Ginger, until with one final pirouette she pivots away.

The plot then winds its way through more absurdity until Lucky and Penny find themselves with each other free and clear, with one boffo reprise singing “A Fine Romance” against “Just the Way You Look Tonight.”

Yous Do, Something to Me

The Astaire/Rogers team tantalizes because of how much more is their whole than the sum of their considerable and lovely parts. It’s the alchemy that happens when certain people are together: The Beatles, Vivien Leigh & Clark Gable, Crockett and Tubbs, Brangelina. There are pairings that just make people want more, want to know more, want to BE a part of the pair somehow. That phenomenon is in full force in Swing Time. Fred and Ginger are the most equal of partners; the synchronizing of their parallel steps is magical. For me, I can’t take my eyes off of Fred. For me his unfailing virtuosity over shines Ginger’s. I’m in the camp of “Eleanor Powell is a more accomplished dancer than Ginger Rogers.” But Powell never had the rapport with Astaire that Rogers did.

And so Rogers and Astaire are in a pantheon all their own. I hope that pop culture points the younger generation toward this artistry sometime in a big way. As I said, there’s lot that will make sense to The Hangover crowd, and much that would jazz them. What they might not know is just how hard Astaire worked at his art.

"This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn't want to be tracked. It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable.
Fred Astaire

Best tribute, go watch the film!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Terror of the Lost Child

For these things I weep; my eye, yea my eye, sheds tears, for the comforter to restore my soul is removed from me; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed. Eichah—Lamentations, 16

Leiby Kletzy vanished early Monday evening while walking home from a Borough Park day camp alone for the first time.”

The depth of the sorrow of the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah cannot begin to express the agony of a young child who is lost. And when that lost child wanders unprotected into evil and is murdered, humanity is stunned into disbelief. I found myself weeping watching the international news in my Sintra, Portugal hotel room. Then if Leiby crossed my mind unawares I found my eyes welling up in restaurants, in rehearsal, on a palace tour, anywhere, because I was a lost child once. Just like Leiby, I got lost walking home from a neighborhood day camp by myself for the first time, when I was 5. It’s one of the most vivid and terrifying experiences of my life.

Lost in Your Own, Safe Neighborhood
We lived just under a ½ mile from East Lake Elementary School, which meant I got a bus to kindergarten but would have to walk to and from school from first grade on.

The summer between kindergarten and first grade I went to day camp at the school, so that’s when I first started walking the ½ mile path. But I never walked alone. My older brother was going to the day camp too, and an older neighbor. My brother walked with me in the morning, and the neighbor walked me home at midday. The 5-year olds only stayed for the morning session.

One day we had a bus trip that got back at 2:00 pm, after the morning break and before the 5:00 end of the afternoon session. This detail had fallen through the cracks. There was no one to meet me at 2, and no one to walk home with. My mother thought the bus was getting back at 5:00, so she wasn’t concerned when I didn’t get home at noon.

The speed with which everyone dispersed after getting off the bus was something right out of a movie. In a matter of moments I was standing literally all alone at the wire gated entrance to the kindergarten rooms. I did understand that my big kid neighbor was already gone. I thought I might be able to find my brother, so I started walking further onto the school grounds, around the whole building. Over by the parking lot I turned a corner and saw teenagers sitting along the school wall, smoking. I think there were 2 girls and 3 boys.

I knew this wasn’t good. At 5 I was pretty small, and I remember feeling particularly small near them. I wanted to turn back but was afraid that doing that would provoke them to come after me. So I started to walk on past them and they started harassing me, asking me if I had any cigarettes, or any money. I kept walking. One of the boys got up and stood in front of me and said “all we have is this apple with a thumb tack in it.” I remember that apple as though I saw it yesterday. One of the girls said,” leave her alone” and he stepped aside and I kept walking, unharmed but rattled. I forgot about trying to find my brother.

East Lake is a big, sprawling school, and I finally got back to where I had started, the main gate. Still there was no one in sight. I started in the direction I thought was toward home. This part of Massapequa is pretty much a grid, but since we were nearly ½ mile away there were quite a few turns to get from the school to home, and everything was looking the same. I got to the corner of the school property, and had three choices. I knew turning right was wrong, but I just didn’t know between continuing straight on (East Lake Avenue) or turning left (onto Connecticut Avenue).

I stood there for what felt like an eternity. I had a feeling I should turn left (which was in fact correct), but that was a short block, and I would have to make another left/right decision again. I was afraid to cross the street at all, I hadn’t done it by myself yet. When you grow up in suburbia you are told from day one not to cross the street without holding someone’s hand.

Straight ahead, but far in the distance, I saw the railroad tracks. I knew that whenever Daddy drove us back from anywhere we ended up driving alongside of them. So I thought if I walked all the way down there, I could walk along side them, and get home. And so I continued straight on.

The houses started to feel quietly menacing, and as I got further away from the school panic started to overtake me. Maybe the train tracks weren’t right. They were pretty far away. As the panic grew I got more and more confused. I walked a half block toward the tracks, then turned around and walked back toward the school. As I walked away from the tracks I felt, no, that’s the only way home, and turned back toward them. At some point I started running, back and forth in this strange path that I couldn’t get further either way.

Then on one of the laps toward the tracks I tripped on the broken sidewalk and fell, really hard. I scrapped open my right knee and shin. Now I’m sitting on the sidewalk, bleeding, crying and crying. The panic is overwhelming and I can’t think at all but I get up, because I’ve got to try to get home. I’m so afraid of just being left there.

I start toward the tracks again, barely able to see through the tears, when suddenly, a little boy is running toward me, with his mother behind him. It’s Arthur Parker, a boy from my kindergarten class. He’s telling his mother, “It’s her, it’s her, she’s in my class.” The look on his face was extraordinary: so much concern, and a little bit of super hero! He really was saving me.

Their house was a little further down toward the tracks. I remember the kitchen so well, where Mrs. Parker cleaned the bleeding leg and gently talked to me. She asked me where I lived, but I wasn’t sure of my address. Thank goodness I knew my telephone number, and she called my mother.

I sat on that kitchen chair, stunned, whimpering. Arty’s sister came in and gave me some plastic bracelets. He stayed by me, still puffed up from his savior role.

Then my mother walked in the door, and my whole world was given back to me.

My heart keeps aching when I think of Leiby getting confused by the streets of his own neighborhood. He had even practiced the route with his parents, but I understand how that wasn't enough.

(Google Earth takes me back to the very streets that confused me. They haven't changed much at all.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Quick Visit to 2007

Easing in to post-vacation blogging to find Tim Footman waxing nostalgic over at Cultural Snow for 2007, “when Amy Winehouse was always in the News of the World and we bloggers used to exchange memes.” (Side note: Ex-Yankee Hideki Irabu’s suicide did not make the international news.)

And so Tim offers a new film meme that he picked up.

Speaking of the convention, am I the last person to notice the Me-Me of meme? C'est la vie. (Kind of like Dr. Neil Tyson tweeting the other day, is he the last person to know that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who.)

1. Movie you love with a passion.
Lawrence of Arabia. Lean produced an excellent visualization of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, capturing its scope and romanticism beautifully.

2. Movie you vow to never watch.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian. My father asked me not to see it. He didn’t ask much of me, so it was easy to comply. Then he died. Made it even easier to uphold the promise.

3. Movie that literally left you speechless.

Born Free. I saw it when I was very young, when it was first shown on TV. Maybe 1970? I cried and cried and couldn’t speak.

4. Movie you always recommend.

Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (and Four Musketeers). You don’t have to be a Dumas fan to love Oliver Reed (Athos) Frank Finlay (Porthos) Richard Chamberlaine (Aramis) Michael York (D’Artagnan) Charleton Heston (Richelieu) and Faye Dunaway as Milady.

5. Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie.

Jeremy Brett. I stayed up to 4:00 am one night many years ago with the BFF watching Secret of Gull Island because Brett was in it.

6. Actor/actress you don’t get the appeal for.

Roger Moore’s James Bond

7. Actor/actress, living or dead, you’d love to meet.

Laurence Olivier. Egotist of the highest order, but he had a distinctive intellect about acting.

8. Sexiest actor/actress you’ve seen (with picture). Yes, both of them.

9. Dream cast.
Casablanca. Each part is exquisitely portrayed.

10. Favorite actor pairing.
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Notorious is the sexiest movie ever.

12. Favorite decade for movies

The 1930s. The white satin dressing gowns alone clench it.

13. Chick flick or action movie?

Chick flicks. Although my guilty pleasure film is 1994’s action flick The Specialist, with Stallone, James Woods, Sharon Stone, and Rod Steiger. There’s a lot of heat there and I love the plot.

14. Hero, villain or anti-hero?

All three: Severus Snape (Probably will change once HP&TDH part 2 fades from memory).

15. Black and white or color?

Black and white. The rough edges of life are so much softer and more beautiful in monochrome.

16. Favorite movie setting?

The French Riviera, To Catch a Thief.