Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Worth Watching: Pickup on South Street (1953)

Title: Pickup on South Street
Director: Sam Fuller
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Pickup on South Street isn't the best film noir I've seen, but it's held together by some powerful scenes, most notably Thelma Ritter's character, Moe Williams, summing up her life as a man points a gun at her head ("I have to go on makin' a living so I can die").

The main character is a pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a smirking jackass for the most part; throughout the movie people keep wanting to deck him, and I don't blame them. At the start of the movie, he steals from Candy (Jean Peters), a 'fallen woman' who's got principles and guts, but also has the unfortunate tendency to give herself over to men like Skip or, even worse, her old boyfriend who deceptively uses her to deliver top-secret information to the Commies.

Movie poster for Pickup on South Street

Because the movie was made in the early 50s, the anti-Communist message gets hammered in a little too much, as lowly criminals and stool pigeons repeatedly tell each other that they'd never stoop to helping the Commies out. Never ever. But the movie isn't about the Cold War; the Commies are just convenient villains. What the movie really focuses on is how petty criminals and other people well-acquainted with street life stay one step ahead of the local police, the FBI, and the Commie villains; they tangle with powerful forces and often come out on top.

Thelma Ritter's performance as Moe Williams is what I recommend most about Pickup on South Street. At the start, Ritter is hilarious, playing what seems to be her usual delightful role of straight-talking wisecracker. But then her character slowly cracks open, revealing sadness and depth. Moe walks the streets selling ties; she also rats people out by selling information to the cops. Her greatest goal in life is to get buried with dignity, not in potter's field but in a classy cemetery. She's the kind of character I love to come across - not a type, but a person.

Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street

*All images link back to their source (Flixster Community).

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Week in Seven Words #177

What do we learn in museums? Sometimes it's only 'oohs' and 'ahhs' and a fact or two. How many times do we really connect with what we're seeing - immerse ourselves in it?

He flies around the souvenir shop like an agitated moth, landing on treasures and launching off them again. Finally, he clutches a prize to his chest, but keeps circling as he's told to put it down again.

A butterfly lands on her shirt front, right on her breasts. She stares at it, eyebrows raised, until it flutters off. "Must be a boy," she says.

Palatial buildings are home to the offices of petty bureaucrats.

The White House is beautiful, but in a strange way looks like a hollow 3D puzzle of itself.

Fun word games give structure to the hours we spend on the road.

Swimming through images captured by Hubble. Strolling in a warm, gray drizzle. Looking out from between low-hanging branches at the Tidal Basin and Jefferson's pale monument.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Mateo Falcone and The Return of the Prodigal Son

Story Collection: Great French Short Stories
Editor: Paul Negri

I highly recommend these two stories.

Title: Mateo Falcone
Author: Prosper Mérimée
Translator: Stanley Appelbaum

This brutal story explores the concept of honor, and how it can be far removed from mercy and humanity. Set in Corsica a couple of centuries ago, the story shows a society where men are inseparable from their guns; there's a striking image of a husband and wife walking home, with the wife burdened under a heavy load of chestnuts, while the husband merely carries two rifles - as it's beneath a man's dignity to bear anything but his guns. Murder is acceptable, as long as certain conditions are met, chief among them an insult to one's manhood - whether it's to a man himself, his family, or his property, with a blurry distinction between the three.

The action centers on the young son of Mateo Falcone, a well-known property owner. The boy is at home alone when a criminal approaches him and asks for shelter from pursuing soldiers; the boy agrees, after the criminal pays him a small sum. Soon after, the infantrymen show up, headed by a sergeant who bribes the boy to reveal the whereabouts of the criminal. More than one betrayal follows.

Title: The Return of the Prodigal Son
Author: André Gide
Translator: Wallace Fowlie

After wandering far afield, the prodigal son in the story returns to his home and enters into dialogue with four family members: his father, his older brother, his mother, and his younger brother. Each family member represents a different aspect of the prodigal son's struggle between his desire to seek in the wilderness what he can't find in society, and the forces that lead him to renounce his wanderings.

His father represents comfort and stability, along with the bonds of love. Interestingly, his father seems to understand that love can be expressed in multiple ways - that his son could have loved him both from the comforts of home, and from the wilderness, without forgetting or despising him. As for the prodigal son's older brother, he's taken over as the authority figure in the house and represents a strict morality, holding that there's only one true way of life that one must follow with complete obedience. With the mother, the prodigal son speaks of self-denial and humility, placing the needs of others over his own and defining himself only by his relationships with his family; he renounces his need to seek a personal identity beyond that. And then, what brings the story round full circle - in his younger brother, the prodigal son discovers what he once was, or thought he was.

What I love about the story is how it explores different sides of morality, especially as it's expressed in conformity to societal norms. What keeps people from straying from their obligations and duties? What is both attractive and terrifying about the wilderness?

I also thought of the story from the angle of religious practice. In some ways, the father represents divine love, while the elder brother is impatient with the complexity of this love and claims to be able to cut through it and see the one truth that must be submitted to without question:
"I know what the Father said to you. It was vague. He no longer expresses himself very clearly, so that he can be made to say what one wants. But I understand his thought very well. With the servants, I am the one interpreter, and who wants to understand the Father must listen to me... There are not several ways of understanding the Father. There are not several ways of listening to him. There are not several ways of loving him, so that we may be united in his love."
The elder brother, who sets himself up as an enforcer of his father's will, is really attempting to rule over his own father as well, defining him narrowly and making him conform to his own vision. A religious fundamentalist, or any strict ideologue really, would think this way.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Week in Seven Words #176

The papers show me a barely literate boy who can't understand a mathematical word problem because the vocabulary is too advanced for him. For years he's lived like this (no one intervened?) and now they expect that sixteen hours of summertime intervention will prepare him for the sixth grade.

A silent figure at a window, she watches the flags, the batons, and the floats. She can probably hear the cheers through the thick, dark glass.

He offers passers-by a joke for a buck. His takers are a skeptical-looking teenager and a sobbing toddler.

He plays the violin huddled in on himself, as if he wants people to think that the music is flowing out of a bodiless entity.

Closed to the public, the promenade becomes a place where shadows stroll and spots of sunlight skip on the pavement.

Ducks preening in a brown pond.

Booths selling blue ceramic teapots and ornate doll heads.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Worth Watching: Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)

Title: Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

This movie succeeds because it's consistently ridiculous and funny. It doesn't let the tone ever slip to melodrama or serious romance; it's a farce from beginning to end, where the characters behave as if the hilarious things they say or do are matter-of-fact. The story finds some inspiration from The Taming of the Shrew, which the husband - played by Gary Cooper - turns to for some guidance in how to deal with his wife. However, he's the one who winds up tamed, and not by being denied food or clothing, or getting mentally beaten into submission.

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife.jpg

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Week in Seven Words #175

For the first time in a while, I watch an NBA game. I like most of it, especially when the scores are close, and it's not clear who'll come out on top. Some of the players act like children though; they could still be adolescent boys. They're also living the life that many adolescent boys fantasize about. In a weird way, it's not an adult life.

When he asks me to play Legos with him, he's less interested in playing than in showing me what he's built in minute detail, like an architect or engineer explaining his latest work.

He hangs out in the background, waiting for us to entertain him. He needs some crumbs of attention and entertainment; maybe we'll show him a funny Youtube video.

In some ways he eats like a grownup. But then, most grownups don't wind up with pieces of avocado on their butt when they're done.

He pushes the plastic car around on the board game of Life, without understanding the milestones.

Every time we drive along this route, we get into the exact same argument. It's like the road has a hold on our minds.

They giggle at the British accents of cartoon nannies and hounds.