Smile Politely

Today an Oscar. Tomorrow insane.

Right after Andy Rooney’s rambling discourse on 60 Minutes, Lee and I watched Douglas Sirk’s 1956 melodrama masterpiece, Written on the Wind, because it was, well, sort of our 29th wedding anniversary, which would have been on the 29th if there had been a 29th this year.

The night before we were married on Leap Day 1980, we held a pre-wedding party at the Channing-Murray Foundation. It was a costume party. People were supposed to come dressed as incurable romantics. I came dressed as a sailor and wore a button that read, “Is cruising really for me?” Lee came dressed as a camp counselor. The rockabilly band Big Daddy Sun and the Outer Planets performed and later, as people milled around, we projected the Sirk movie in 16mm on a screen.

The garishly-colored film won a couple Oscars in 1956, including one for Dorothy Malone as the nymphomaniac daughter of a Texas oil baron. Today, her character looks like a madwoman, dancing in ways that prefigure krumping, kicking her legs into the air as her father falls down the winding staircase to his death by a broken heart.

Robert Stack was nominated for his role as her brother, an alcoholic and sterile heir to the fortune who marries his secretary, Lauren Bacall, even though she obviously is in love with Stack’s best friend, the rock-solid Rock Hudson. Stack drinks corn whisky to excess, drives his yellow sports car with abandon, and emotes to high heaven, often to be restrained by the restrained Rock Hudson (who was not nominated).

“This is insane,” Lee said last night as Stack and Bacall meet, say they love each other, and get married all within the course of about a minute.

“People used to be like that,” I said. “People fell in love in a minute. They must have thought this movie was realistic. It got Oscar nominations.”

“People used to be insane,” she said, as Dorothy Malone — alone with her fortune and no man around — collapses on her desk, stroking her 12-inch model oil well up and down like … well, let’s just say they did know about Freud and phallic symbols even in 1956.

Later, I used the name of the Rock Hudson character, Mitch Wayne, for my record reviews in The Weekly.

My favorite moment in this year’s Oscar show was the sketch parody of Pineapple Express, with Seth Rogan and James Franco high, laughing hysterically at movie clips from The Reader and Doubt. Those movies — dead serious today — may seem hilarious and bizarre 40 years from now too, with acting styles that bear no resemblance to our reality to come, and themes that stretch credulity.

Come to think of it, maybe Doubt already does that. I had to resist envisioning Meryl Streep singing “Take a Chance on Me” in her nun habit. And The Reader is yet another movie about an older woman sleeping with an underage boy, which — when the roles are reversed — usually counts as pedophilia.

I had such an argument with an old friend about The History Boys — which he hated because 17-year-old male students let their male teacher fondle them — that our friendship was broken and never repaired. He loved both The Reader and Notes on a Scandal, by the way, both of which feature young boys and adult women doing a lot more than fondling.

Movies shape our friendships, marriages, and choices. Movies have informed the lives of Lee and me all along, it seems. For our honeymoon, we went to three European film festivals in a row: Cannes, Florence, and Zagreb. We named our first son after the Joseph Cotton character, Jedediah Leland, who was Citizen Kane’s best friend, a theater critic. Before we were married, we both worked for Expanded Cinema Group as film projectionists.

So far this year, I’ve watched over 75 movies. Sometimes the movies swirl around in my head and remind me of the quote of quadriplegic Irish author Christopher Nolan, who died last week:

“My mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed, my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down in my lap. Images gunfire across my consciousness and while trying to discipline them I jump in awe at the soul-filled bounty of my mind’s expanse.”

Although Andy Rooney rambles, as do I, neither of us can make such an eloquent claim as that.

In April, two film events happen in Champaign-Urbana. One is, of course, Ebertfest, which I’ll be officially covering for the first time in a few years. The problem, generally, is that I’ve already seen the movies. But I’ll overlook that this time.

Speculation has already surfaced that titles in the lineup for Ebertfest include Chop Shop, My Winnipeg, Frozen River, The Fall, Trouble the Water, and Sita Sings the Blues, all of which have been available in one form or another. I’d say that was a pretty informed list, but I’m just guessing.

The Champaign Public Library is also sponsoring a free five-film series of film noir on Wednesdays in April. I’ll be moderating discussions after the films. I’m looking forward to this and I’m sure Smile Politely will have more information on both events upcoming.

Someone mailed me copies of Milk and Slumdog Millionaire last week. They only play on the computer, but the quality is good. Do not tell the FBI. I also have enjoyed watching the BBC television series Skins, where Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire) first got noticed.

And, finally, since my deadline has arrived and gone and I still don’t have a way to make this cohere any better than Andy Rooney ever does, I will offer my apologies and proffer a distracting, surrealist bonus, a clip of Salvador Dali when he appeared on the 1950s game show What’s My Line. Please note that people won $5 prizes on game shows in the 1950s rather than one million dollars, but people were more romantic and insane back in the day. 

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