Friday, October 20, 2006

Stormy Week/Aldrich


Connie Stevens in The Grissom Gang

A week ago, a doozy of a snowstorm blew into town. We’ve seen our share of snow here in Buffalo, but three things made it different this time: (1) The snow was wet and heavy; (2) The trees were still laden with leaves; and (3) It was a fully orchestrated event with dog-rattling thunder and lightning, and howling wind. And it lasted for days.

Thousands of trees cracked and split and crashed, often bringing down power lines; most of the city and surrounding areas quickly lost electricity. My front and back yards are still almost completely covered with tree limbs; I’m lucky my house is still intact. Just by itself, living without power for a week isn’t too hard to get used to. What made it hard was the lack of heat and the rising water table, which threatened basement flooding. I spent the first few days bailing hundreds of buckets of water from the basement sump. I’d be exhausted at night, shoulders and back aching from all the exertions. (Manual labor and being "handy around the house" are not my forte!)

My next-door neighbor is a plumber and I consult him for all my home emergencies; he generously hooked up his generator to my basement sump so I could stop bailing, which was a life-saver. I had canned food to last me for a week. With the traffic lights on the blink, you took your life in your hands by venturing out on the roads; so, I spent most of my time at home reading by candlelight, piano-noodling and catching up on my sleep. Things could’ve been worse.

The week’s excitement notwithstanding, I’d hate to see Dennis Cozzalio’s wonderful Robert Aldrich blog-a-thon go by without tipping my chapeau in its direction. With my house in darkess and coldness, I nevertheless managed to watch two Aldrich films on my battery-operated laptop: The Grissom Gang and Hustle. I’d like to apologize for the cursory (and distracted!) thoughts that follow, but I figured that if I don’t set down a few words about these films now, I’ll never get around to doing it.


* * *

When I mention the name “James Hadley Chase” to Americans, I usually get a blank stare, but to Indian high school kids of my generation, Chase’s crime novels were as well-known as Harry Potter books are today. Chase was British but his books were set in America and he wrote in a thoroughly American hard-boiled James M. Cain-like prose; it was the literary equivalent of those early British Invasion bands who affected American accents in their singing and were so steeped in the musical idioms of this country that it was a shock to discover that they weren’t American. Also, Chase’s books were the closest an Indian student could get to laying his hands on ‘racy’ literature. By permissive Western standards, Chase’s novels would be too weak to even be tagged ‘softcore’ today but they packed a punch for the, um, image-deprived Indian adolescent.

The Grissom Gang (1971) is based on James Hadley Chase’s best-known book, No Orchids For Miss Blandish. In the 1930s, a crime gang family run by tough, machine gun-cradling matriarch Ma Grissom kidnaps a wealthy heiress (Kim Darby) for ransom. Ma plans to bump off the girl after collecting the ransom but her son Slim falls in love with the girl. Slim—a psychopathic creep—starts out as a laughable character, but Aldrich slowly turns the tables on us. The kidnapped girl begins to develop feelings—or at least sympathy—for him. The film ends on a note of great, unexpected pathos.

There are two families in the film, the kidnapped girl’s and the kidnappers, and perversely enough, the latter turns out to be the more sympathetic one! Aldrich is examining institutions—family, parenthood, romantic union—that have been represented in countless other films. Well aware of this, his view of these institutions is unconventional, distanced and sardonic but nicely complicated by sympathy. In this sense, his eye is not unlike Chabrol's: a touch entomological, although not, I would argue, misanthropic.

Another twisted romantic relationship is at the heart of Hustle (1975). Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve are lovers. He’s a hardened cop and she’s an upscale prostitute. At first, their relationship is business-like and ‘broad-minded.’ She casually conducts phone sex business around the house while he hangs about; unsurprisingly, this begins to send him over the edge. When things come to a head, Aldrich stages an unsettling rape scene and dares us to consider interpreting it as (perhaps) a love scene. Aldrich’s view of love may be sardonic but it is intelligently countered in both films through the sympathetic, even tender presence of the two female leads (Deneuve and Darby) who never allow the audience to pass easy judgments on the characters' motives, actions, self-interest, etc. In both movies, Aldrich achieves a balance between the psychological (how individuals behave alone and in relation to each other) and the sociological (how he sees American social institutions and the people who are part of them).

A few words about the music. The Grissom Gang is a post-Bonnie & Clyde movie. It lays down sprightly thirties jazz to accompany often horrific moments in the film. There’s a good reason why this works. Jazz of the swing era (the 30s) differed from jazz of the bebop era (beginning in the 40s) in many ways. For example, swing tended to be rhythmically more emphatic, stressing all four beats in a bar, which often gave it an insistent jauntiness. This contrast of a cheery soundtrack with dark subject matter has the interesting effect of distancing the filmmaker (and the audience) from the material, adding a reflective layer to the viewing experience. The music undercuts the images, and we’re forced to dialectically construct a personal response to the combination of image and sound.

An interesting touch. Hustle is a film with strong political critique; in it, wealthy and powerful lives are worth much more than 'ordinary' ones. As they are cruising down a Los Angeles boulevard in a convertible, Reynolds tells Deneuve that the Americans are trying to open the first McDonald's in Paris. Deneuve replies incredulously that they will never succeed. "Paris is a fortress against the hamburger!" she asserts. Considering all of Aldrich's knowingness, irony and political skepticism, Deneuve's conviction seems one that Aldrich perhaps cautiously shared at the time. (At least that's the feeling I got from the scene.) The sad thing is: All his pessimism seems completely justified today, while his one throwaway note of optimism has been proven false.

53 Comments:

Anonymous David Hudson said...

Great to "hear" your "voice" again, Girish, and really glad you've made it through that ordeal (mostly) unscathed.

October 21, 2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks so much, David.

October 21, 2006 10:28 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

It's fascinating to hear these stories from the snowstorm, girish!

I haven't seen any of his 1970s films like Hustle yet but I did recently read the Aldrich intervew in Peter Bogdanovich's Who The Hell Made It?, in which he talked about the problems of putting pointed political commentary in films made by Hollywood studios, which didn't know how to sell films to anything smaller than a mass audience, and therefore was afraid of alienating anybody. Or something like that. He seemed frustrated by the situation, noting that European filmmakers were not hampered by such constraints. Perhaps his filmmaking in the 70s was able to be somewhat more overtly political, though? Sounds like it from your relation of Hustle.

October 21, 2006 6:11 PM  
Blogger Momo said...

Hey Girish

Haven't dropped in for awhile, but have been keeping up with your posts and very glad to read that you're safe at least. Hang in there!

Read your post with interest, albeit I haven't watched any of these films, so what I'm going to say here may be rather out on a limb...... Your notes on the jazz music of Grissom Gang are very interesting - brings to mind Clockwork Orange and Beethoven's 9th (?). Am also intrigued by your comments on Aldrich's perspective - "a touch entomological, although not, I would argue, misanthropic" - I am reminded of my impressions of Jafar Panahi (esp Crimson Gold and Circle), which I've also found to be cool and distant - analytical without being judgmental, critical yet still extremely humanist (?). In any case, I'm intrigued and I will check out these films - thank you for writing about them!! :-) Take care, Girish, and keep well.

October 21, 2006 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Thanks to Aldrich, I own a copy of No Orchids for Miss Blandish which I bought in paperback not long after The Grissom Gang was released. Now I wish that Chase wasn't out of print so I could read his other books.

October 21, 2006 7:10 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Peter, there's someone by that name turning up on amazon.com, apparently in print. If he's not your man, there's always inter-library loan (still, it is a shame when good things become unavailable).

Girish, I like this post and its description of Aldrich's work. Do you know if there's any specific cut showing a departure in style from swing to bebop, or maybe straddling the gap between the two? If such a thing exists, I'd love to be schooled on it.

October 22, 2006 12:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone.

Brian, until you mentioned it just now, I forgot all about the Bogdanovich book and the Aldrich interview in it (thank you!). I have it sitting right here on my shelf and shall read it today.

Jenna, it's good to hear from you. You make great and thought-provoking points as always. I've been meaning to write you; I'll do that today.

"Do you know if there's any specific cut showing a departure in style from swing to bebop, or maybe straddling the gap between the two?"

Tuwa, good question.
I can make two suggestions:

(1) Coleman Hawkins' 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" is a good example. Looking ahead to bop, it uses a small group, unlike swing, but more importantly, Hawkins's soloing is extremely unswing-like in the (hair-raising!) chances he takes with harmony (chords). They boldly anticipate bop soloing approaches. What makes this amazing is that Hawkins was not a young Turk like Charlie Parker or Bud Powell but an old swing band veteran.

(2) Charlie Parker more than any other single musician was the bop trailblazer, so we should call him up here. A fascinating A-B comparison can be made by listening to Parker in two settings: first in the late 30s swing band of his old Kansas City boss Jay McShann, and then comparing with his own early and pioneering small-band bop recordings on Savoy like "Ko-Ko" or "Bird Gets The Worm".

Tuwa, you've given me a juicy idea for a post. :-)

October 22, 2006 7:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I've seen Chase's novels in Toronto used-bookstores. Maybe on your next trip there you can pick up a bag of swag...

October 22, 2006 7:22 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Thanks, Girish. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping something like that would happen. ^_^

October 22, 2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, like everyone else I'm glad you've weathered the storm and could contribute to the Aldrich blogathon. I love Connie Stevens.

October 22, 2006 2:30 PM  
Anonymous Jim Flannery said...

When you're looking for books by Chase, don't neglect to also look for Raymond Marshall and Ambrose Grant ... they're all pseudonyms for the same cat writing mostly in the same genre.

October 22, 2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Welcome back, Girish! I love snow, but the practical day-to-day existence in it can be exhausting, and sometimes worse. And I've never went through such a serious storm. So glad you made it through!

And I'm even more glad you decided to write on The Grissom Gang. It just arrived from Netflix, so I'm going to watch it tonight and then savor your post afterward! Thanks for helping to make the Aldrich Blog-a-Thon such a fun experience for all of us!

October 22, 2006 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Girish --

I've been way too busy recently to blog much, let alone comment on other people's blogs...

But I just wanted to say how glad I was you spoke up for Hustle, a movie I love and that is grievously underrated most of the time.

Steve Shaviro

October 22, 2006 9:23 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

OK, I'm just starting to finally get around to these Aldrich blog-a-thon entries--and in this case, I haven't seen either Grissom Gang or Hustle yet, so thanks, Girish! And you've pinpointed a great way of describing how certain filmmakers (or artists in general) might deal with people--'entomologically.' Excellent!

October 23, 2006 9:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks everyone!
I appreciate it.

Some links:
--Acquarello on Belgian cinema.
--David Bordwell catches up with Satantango, etc.
--Zach on Joseph Losey.
--Ben the Whine-Colored One on Marie Antoinette.
--Thom at Film Of The Year on Cabiria (1914).
--Jim Tata might be joining up to write a novel next month.
--Harry on Ceylan's Climates. Also, he has started up a new blog for his blog-a-thon, called Unspoken Cinema.

October 23, 2006 1:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Just added a few blogs and sites to the ole blogroll. And here's Andy on his lunch break, proposing a classification scheme for blogs.

October 23, 2006 1:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hilarious. Via David Hudson, at Jump Cuts, the first four minutes of Borat.

October 23, 2006 3:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--Matt Clayfield has a post on Adrian Martin.
--Jonathan Rosenbaum's comments spark some ideas from Rob Davis.
--David Lowery talks to filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt.

October 23, 2006 8:49 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I know exactly which screening Bordwell first missed: Satantango was showing at the Hong Kong film festival. I missed that exact same screening. Still haven't caught up with the film...

October 24, 2006 4:49 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I love this photo at the top of the post; every time I see it I wonder what's going on in the scene. She looks sad about having to shoot the person she's about to shoot.

October 24, 2006 12:09 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I realized I wrote on an Aldrich film! Is the blogathon still on...?

Closing down my AOL blog. It'll still be here, but there won't be any more new posts. Or if there are new posts, they'll be links to this blog:Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine and World Cinema, and Other Grotesqueries

And check out my first real post there: an account of what happened at the Imaginasian Filipino Film Festival.

So long, and see you there...

October 24, 2006 2:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, you've made a canny observation, my friend. That is exactly right. She's just discovered that her gansgter-lover might've been using her all along, so it's an expression of puzzlement, betrayal, anger and disappointment all rolled into one.

I scoured the DVD for a suitable screen capture and had to look no further when I stumbled upon the shot...

October 24, 2006 2:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for posting those, Noel. I shall update your link on my blogroll!

October 24, 2006 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Time to declare a holiday! Son of The Siren was born October 19th.

October 24, 2006 2:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, Great news!

October 24, 2006 4:11 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Speaking of Filipino films, the Insiang screening at NYFF wasn't well attended at all, maybe half full. It was a big contrast to the two other revival films Mafioso and Reds which were packed.

Several of the people I was talking to in between screenings (including me) were also put off by the producer's hard sell reiteration of making the film according to Christian values during the film's introduction. Honestly, if she mentioned making the film using "God's laws" one more time, I would have been tempted to break the fifth commandment. >:(

...Err, the Catholic one, not the Protestant, adultery one. :)

October 24, 2006 6:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"Err, the Catholic one..."
Glad you clarified, A.
I was rubbing my eyes in disbelief! :-)

October 24, 2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I didn't remember it being half full at all acquarello; it seemed more than that. Not full, but on its way. And good considering Filipino films are a complete unknown. Like I said, we were surprised they used Alice Tully and not the Walter Reade.

I do agree about Ruby Tiong Tan. The strange part is, she was a hedonist when she made Insiang. Somewhere along the way she did an about turn on reality, I suppose.

October 24, 2006 10:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--J. Hoberman on Ceylan's Climates.
--At Greencine, Michael Guillen interviews the director of the Jonestown documentary.

October 25, 2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

A little Adrian Martin immersion:
--The cinema of Roman Polanski.
--John Cassavetes: Inventor of Forms.
--Bressonian.
--Rotterdam '02 fest report.
--Delirious Enchantment.

October 25, 2006 7:43 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Re: not-crowded Insiang--it was listed as sold out when I tried to get NYFF tickets to it online! I was pissed! (And since I couldn't make it to the Imaginasian screenings--sorry to have missed you at those, Noel--I am doubly pissed!)

October 25, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger girish said...

--Noel has posted a short introduction to Philippine cinema.
--Not sure if anyone shares my affection for 80s dance-pop (Eric Henderson, perhaps?) but Jan has posted links to two mp3 mixes .
--Michelangelo Matos on Gilberto Gil.

October 25, 2006 9:52 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Yeah, NYFF has that annoying habit of reserving blocks of seats (to accommodate large groups people, like 4-6) and they usually don't release those until just a few days before the film, so if you actually tried to get tickets early like normal people do, you get screwed. The Insiang screening definitely had a lot of these block seats open, even if the theater was more than half full, it was definitely less than 2/3. For instance, I don't remember anyone going into the box seats up top, just a few on the loge (including the guy who made the preceding short film). It was noon on the closing weekend too, so people were probably exhausted already and overslept.

Actually, I'm pretty sure I spotted Noel, there was a kind of Filipino contingent by the access ramp near the bar (I was at the bar foraging for munchies :) ), and people were taking turns going outside to be interviewed.

October 25, 2006 10:14 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Yeah, I remember that interview thing, they pulled me aside and asked me to say something.

Too bad, Zach; if they do it again and invite me next year, probably June, we should meet...

October 25, 2006 4:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-Michael at Culturespace on Marie Antoinette.
--Dennis Cozzalio on several new films opening imminently.
--At Dr. Mabuse: Paranoid Humanoids: The Fear of Technology and the Disappearance of Virtual Reality.

October 26, 2006 6:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

--Andy on a sequence from Moulin Rouge.
--Some new capsule write-ups at Steve Carlson's.
--Whine-Colored Ben has a movie question.

October 26, 2006 7:28 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

And here I thought it snowed every day in Buffalo...

Seriously, though, glad to hear you're alright. In my neck of the woods, people complain when we get an inch and a half of snow... I wonder how these people would survive a REAL storm. (I also wonder why I, a West Coast native, seem to handle the cold better than half the people who've lived their entire lives here. But that's neither here nor there.)

October 26, 2006 1:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I know what you mean, Steve. People here think I'm crazy for having moved from tropical Madras to Buffalo, but the truth is the humid heat always bothered me much more than the cold does. If I didn't have to drive in the white stuff, slippin' and slidin' all over the place, Buffalo would be just perfect.

October 26, 2006 6:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--Doug Cummings on Peter Watkins' La Commune.
--Brian Darr has a post, packed with movie links, on San Francisco theaters.
--In the NYT: Brice Marden exhibit at the MoMA.

October 27, 2006 8:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

--Jonathan Rosenbaum on Death Of A President.
--Matt Clayfield on Quebecois performance artist Marie Brassard's Peepshow.

October 27, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish, ever heard of this guy? One cheap shot deserves another: a reply to an article on Insiang

To be fair, he has some substantial things to say about, say Lynch and Haneke (I googled some of his articles). I just think he completely missed the boat on this particular film...

October 27, 2006 11:50 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Girish, I'm late in catching up with this post, but good grief, glad you're still alive! I'm with you...handyman skills are not my forté. I hope your wrists survived all the bailing.

October 27, 2006 12:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Doug. My hands survived fine which tells me (touch wood) that after a couple of years, my tendinitis woes might finally be behind me...

Noel, I hadn't heard of the guy, but I enjoyed your rejoinder.

October 27, 2006 12:49 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

So you're saying that macs can heal the infirmed, huh? Apple should use that for their next switch ad. ;)

October 27, 2006 1:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, switching to the Mac iBook last year (it was a total impulse buy--I had never touched a Mac before) was a life-saver. The low-impact keyboard was gentle on my hands. I was back at the Apple store last week checking out the Macbooks. I was really tempted to splurge and upgrade but my iBook is barely a year old, and I couldn't really justify it. So, I settled for a fat memory upgrade instead. Man, this 1.5 GB of RAM makes a big difference. I can have a gazillion Safari windows open at a time and the machine hums right along....So yes, I'm a shameless Mac convert who's never going back.

October 27, 2006 1:33 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Thanks girish. I was wondering if 1) I was making any sense, and 2) I was going overboard with the sarcasm. Glad to know that at least I 3) managed to entertain in some capacity.

October 27, 2006 9:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--Just discovered this: Brattleblog, run by the Brattle theater.
--Several new posts this week at the tireless Michael Guillen's.
--Chris Fujiwara reports from Pusan: Korean Films from the Japanese Colonial Period.
--This is a hoot: Panopticist posts a link to a screen test sent to Kubrick when he was casting Full Metal Jacket.

Road trip today to Toronto to catch three movies and get my Indian food fix. Gulab jamun, here I come.

October 28, 2006 7:22 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

For someone who's "tireless"; I sure feel exhausted right about now. But always grateful for your mentions, Girish. Thank you.

October 29, 2006 1:43 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh you're very welcome, Michael.

Some new posts: Mubarak; Steve Shaviro; Owen Hatherley; Dave Kehr; Andy; Flickhead; Round-Headed Boy; WeepingSam at Listening Ear.

October 29, 2006 7:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain on John Cassavetes and Pauline Kael.

October 29, 2006 11:55 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Kubrick screen test 2006. Ah, he's a sport. I'd love to know what happened in the intervening years.

October 31, 2006 9:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, that's hilarious. Some of the comments now lead me to think it's an" imposter", though I was completely taken in at first!

November 01, 2006 1:05 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

From the link: Wow, anyone who thinks this is Atene is fucking dense.

[Raises hand]

Sometimes I feel plenty dense, sure. Embarrassing confession: it took me a couple of years of watching films to be able to tell 1970s Al Pacino from 1970s Dustin Hoffman.

November 02, 2006 2:05 AM  

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