Saturday, January 24, 2009


Indulge my fantasy. You've been framed for murder and have to prove your innocence so you're tailing someone whose activities are highly suspicious and who might lead you to the true murderer. But you have to be careful. You can't be seen and caught. So you watch his activities from a magazine stand across the street, with your trenchcoat collar turned up and your fedora brim bent down, hiding your face in a magazine. Imagine, if you will, that these are the magazine covers surrounding you during your surveillance. Tonight, Castro Theatre, the featured guest will be Arlene Dahl!

NOIR CITY 7—Eddie Muller's Opening Night Intro

Boasting a sold-out opening night at the Castro Theatre (that's 1,400 seats, kids!), the seventh edition of Noir City kicked off with an elegiac clip reel which paid tribute to Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Jules Dassin, and Richard Widmark—noir alumni lost to us in this past year—but, if ever cinema has trumped death, never has the proof been more evident than in the perseverance of their contributions on the silver screen.

With this week's inauguration, it's a new day in America. It's a time for optimism, accountability, fairness and honesty. For the next 10 days of the festival, Noir City promises none of that! Instead, they promise straight doses of darkness, desperation, danger and deceit. As our tour guide through this murderous metropolis, San Francisco's own
Eddie Muller—the "Sultan of Cinematic Shadow and Sin", the "Czar of Noir"—greeted his capacity crowd.

Admitting he was choked up from watching the opening clip reels, Muller said he knew they would appreciate the tribute very much. He quoted the adage—"If you live long enough, you're going to see everything"—and added that, having recently turned 50, he has seen things he never thought he would see before. For instance, a plane actually can land on water! Muller used to laugh when they would announce—"In the unlikely event of a water landing…."—convinced the plane would sink. And there's a black man in the white house! And there will be miracles of this order in the Castro Theatre this week, Muller promised. "For instance," he guaranteed, "I can promise you that every day for the next 10 days you will be able to see two smartly-written, beautifully-crafted motion pictures in less time than it takes to sit through The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And you will pay less for the privilege."

Straight off Muller acknowledged his partner in crime Anita Monga—"You know her, you love her, you can't live without her"—crediting her for being the individual responsible for giving birth to the Film Noir Foundation and the Noir City Film Festival. Emphasizing its old school aesthetic, Muller specified that the festival has no corporate sponsorship of any kind. The Foundation and the Festival are true grass roots operations. "We're so old school," Muller asserted, "that we believe in the value of pretty pictures and that people will respond to that." Praising Bill Selby for the festival's art design and poster—"I'm sure you will agree that this year's poster is by far the breast … er best … poster we've ever had"—Muller was delighted to announce that Miss Noir City has agreed to pose for photographs with appreciative fans willing to be caught in her deadly embrace.

"San Francisco movie fans are without question the greatest movie fans in the world," Muller proclaimed. "We now do Noir City in Hollywood, Seattle, Washington, D.C., later this year we'll do it in Chicago, we're going to do a road show next year in France, and they are all so envious that we draw audiences like this to this festival. In Los Angeles they are tickled if they draw 300 people. We have filled up a 1,400-seat house here tonight! Thank you!

"Thanks to the fabulous local media, I'm sure that you all know that the theme of this year's festival is newspaper noir. What you might not know is that my father—also Eddie Muller—was a newspaper man. He worked at the San Francisco Examiner for 52 years; it was the only employer he ever had. He started there when he was a copy boy at age 13. William Randolph Hearst was the only person who ever paid his paycheck. Just to really put you in a nostalgic mood, I found one of my dad's old paystubs the other day. Bear in mind, he was a sports writer. He wrote only about boxing, very much like Humphrey Bogart in the film we're going to show later in the series, The Harder We Fall. I found his paystub from about 1970 when his take-home was about $237 a week. And he had a three-story house here in San Francisco on that salary! Damn! If that doesn't make you long for the good ol' days!

"This series is about the newspaper business and newspaper men. If you don't know what that means—and I'm sorry for the sexist terms; but, it is about newspaper men
it is a fine art, something that America sadly is losing; the Internet is pushing that all away. We will no longer see the newspaper business operate as it did in 20th century America. It's very interesting that we managed to choose all of these movies for this festival at a time when the newspaper business is in such dire straits."

Qualifying that Deadline, U.S.A.—the opening night feature that he's been wanting to show for many years—is not technically a noir film, Muller nonetheless recalled watching Deadline, U.S.A. with his father when he was home from work one day. "I actually saw my old man tear up at the end of this movie." Asserting Deadline, U.S.A. is a secret, guilty pleasure among all old school newspaper men, Muller professed to knowing that fellows like Pete Hamill and Bob Greene love this movie. While talking about old school newspaper guys, Muller shouted out to Wendell Jamieson in the audience. Some years back, the Noir City Film Festival made the front of the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times—"Which was fantastic; we were all around the world because of that"—and Jamieson, City Editor at the Times, was responsible. When Jamieson's wife said she wanted to go on a vacation, Jamieson quickly announced, "I know just the place to go!"

Finally, Muller indicated that both films in the opening night double bill were written by newspaper men and added that's why the scripts are so tight when most films today are 20 minutes too long. "These guys had the unerring belief that you had to tell a story fast and punchy."

Cross-published on

Friday, January 23, 2009

TCM: PRIVATE SCREENINGS—The Evening Class Interview With Ernest Borgnine

Along with discussing TCM's upcoming "31 Days of Oscar" and reminiscing on Arlene Dahl, Robert Osborne and I talked about Ernest Borgnine, with whom he recently taped an interview for TCM's "Private Screenings", which will premiere on Monday, January 26, 2009, 5:00PM (PT), followed by a four-film tribute. Borgnine, a venerable 92-year-old, is the oldest living Academy Award®-winning actor, now that Charlton Heston has passed away. Osborne and I exchanged a few comments regarding this Hollywood legend and then a few hours later I was offered the chance to share a few minutes with Ernie as well.

* * *

Robert Osborne: [Ernie] may be matched with Olivia DeHaviland because she's 92 as well. Jennifer Jones, I believe, is a couple of years younger. I must say that—knowing both of them—Borgnine and Olivia, is that they are both examples of how great it can be to live that long if you have good genes. They're both pistols. They both have great recall. He was absolutely charming to talk to and he had such wonderful stories. He's got that gleam in his eye. He's ready for more mischief! And he can't wait to work again and have fun on a film set. You don't think of people in their nineties being able to be that viable working in the world but Ernest Borgnine certainly is.

Michael Guillén: What excites me about an actor like Ernest Borgnine is the expansive body of his career, which allows a person to enter the body of work at various junctures. Myself, I first began watching Borgnine through the television series McHale's Navy and only later looped back to appreciate his Academy Award®-winning turn in Marty—which is likewise scheduled in this year's 31 Days programming as part of the "course" on Urban Ethnic Cultures—and forward to appreciate such disaster epics as 1972's The Poseidon Adventure.

Osborne: The other wonderful thing about Ernie is all the wonderful people he's worked with; all those giants from Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra—who he adored—to Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. The list of people with whom he's worked—Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis—is just extraordinary. He's got wonderful stories about them. He's also got a positive outlook about his life and his career and he saw his work and those people as a great pleasure and privilege to work with and be around. It's so refreshing to talk to someone who doesn't have a cynical view of working in Hollywood. He's taken great pride in being an actor.

* * *

After setting it up that I could call him "Ernie" if he could call me "Mike", Ernest Borgnine and I briefly touched upon his marriages, his career, and a thoroughly idiosyncratic selection of films from his extensive filmography.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Ernie, it's such a great honor to talk with you today. I was just talking to Robert Osborne a little bit earlier this morning and I was telling him that one of the most remarkable aspects of your career is precisely its longevity. You've been around for a long time!

Ernest Borgnine: [Laughs.] And I plan to go on a little further.

Guillén: Because you have such a great body of work, a person can access your career at any point along the timeline and move back and forth to sample its breadth. I started watching you as a kid with your television portrayal of Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale in McHale's Navy. Then when I got older and became more of a film aficionado, I went back and watched your well-deserved and not-to-be-missed Oscar®-winning performance in Marty. Since then I've watched you in many other films. I'm confident that in the upcoming "Private Screenings" broadcast of your interview with Robert Osborne, that Robert will have touched upon and discussed with you the films being profiled that evening: Marty, From Here to Eternity, The Last Command and Torpedo Run. So I was wondering if we could talk instead about some of your other films that are favorites of mine?

Borgnine: Yeah!

Guillén: Before we get into those, however, there are a few personal things I'm curious about and I've been told that I'm free to ask you anything. I understand you were married to Ethel Merman for a month?

Borgnine: 32 days. [Laughs.]

Guillén: During that short period of time, did she sing in the shower?

Borgnine: No, because I never saw her take a shower. Ethel and I started out on a wedding trip and—by way of Hawaii—we went to a number of places. From the very first day that we stopped in Hawaii, a fellow walked up to me and he said, "McHale! My God, you're McHale!" He introduced himself and then I said, "Listen, I'd like to introduce you to my wife Ethel Merman." He didn't know Ethel from Shinola. So I said, "She's an all-time great from the Broadway stage." "Oh yes," he said, "now I remember." Ethel got pissed about that because she wanted to know why nobody knew her.

That happened all the way along the trip. People knew and recognized me but no one knew and recognized her. "What is this?" she said, "What's coming off here?" By the time we finally got home, she was ready to skin me alive while I was wondering what the Hell I had done wrong? We went to a welcome home party at a lawyer friend's and there she berated me in front of everyone until I finally walked off. I went home and thought, "To Hell with that." The next day I told her, "You better call your agency, or your man, and I'll call mine and we'll just call it quits right now." She said, "What do you mean?" I said, "I'm horrified. I'm miserable. No more. I'm sorry." Three years later I was in a little town in Iowa, stuck in the mud over there, and they had a little storefront set up like a museum with WWII outfits and things like that. My friend who was with me said, "Hey look, there's a book by your former wife." I said, "Let's take a look at it." But when she mentioned Ernest Borgnine, it was a blank page. So at least she didn't have anything bad to say about me. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Hopefully, then, your subsequent marriage to Katy Jurado went more smoothly?

Borgnine: Katy was my second wife. Ethel was my third. I had two children with my fourth wife [Donna Rancourt] and now I'm in my fifth marriage [to Tova Traesnaes], which this coming February 24 will be 37 years of wedded bliss.

Guillén: Congratulations! Practice makes perfect, eh?

Borgnine: That's true, yeah.

Guillén: You were often cast as a bad guy. You played a lot of villains in westerns and army films. One of my favorite performances of yours is as Bart Lonergan in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954). Any stories about Joan Crawford?

Borgnine: Joan was the type of a person that looked all right but don't cross her, y'know? She didn't especially care for Mercedes McCambridge. It was written in the script that Joan's character Vienna didn't like Mercedes' character Emma; but, evidently Joan didn't like Mercedes personally. At the time she was the favorite of Nicholas Ray and she took it out on Nicholas Ray, not Mercedes McCambridge. Am I making myself clear? She called Mercedes McCambridge a fishwife and every other name that she could call her. There was no ruse about it either. The time came when Mercedes McCambridge had the gun on Joan in the saloon and she's supposed to shoot her and Mercedes McCambridge couldn't lift that gun in order to fire and that's when Joan really let go: "You so-and-so!" [Laughs.]

Guillén: But you got along okay with Crawford?

Borgnine: Oh yeah, we came out of it fine. We had a ball. She thought I was great.

Guillén: Another film of your's I love is Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) where you play
Coley Trimble, a racist accessory to murder. A great film! What was it like working with Spencer Tracy?

Borgnine: Tracy. I'll never forget Tracy. It was the first time I'd ever worked with him and I was scared stiff. My God, here was the man who was an idol—no doubt about it—and not only mine but everybody else's idol. There was a scene that had taken place where I had shoved him off a sandbar and everything else, then he comes riding back into town in this jeep and that's where I was to say my first line in the first scene I had anything to do with him. Robert Ryan came up and said, "Do you mind if I watch this scene?" I said, "No, not at all, not at all." A couple of other fellows walked in wanting to know if they could watch the scene and I said, "Yes, of course, by all means." Their presence—plus the fact that I was working across from Spencer Tracy—was enough to have me blubbering. But what are you gonna do? The cameras started shooting. Tracy got out of the car. I looked up and all I could see were two Academy Awards coming at me. I forgot my name, my line, everything until somebody got up in front of me and I said, "Well, if it ain't the All-American road hog." He talked about how he had tried to get out of my way. Spencer Tracy walked through the hotel door, the scene passed, and that was it. "Print it. Bring the camera over here." Everybody was saying, "Good, kid." Spencer walked out and he said, "Hey, when you're working, you look a man right in the eye, don't ya?" I said, "That's the way to work it, isn't it?" Tracy said, "It's certainly the way I like to work and we're going to get along fine." I'll never forget that beginning with Spencer Tracy.

Guillén: How about Ice Station Zebra (1968) where you play double agent Vaslov? This was yet another large ensemble film on which you collaborated. Patrick McGoohan recently passed away. Any thoughts on Patrick?

Borgnine: Yeah. He was a good man. Kind of crazy, but by golly, he did it right.

Guillén: Ice Station Zebra was filmed about the time McGoohan was doing The Prisoner on TV?

Borgnine: He had just done it and everybody was hot for it, y'know? But when we were shooting Ice Station Zebra, he seemed a little high. He kept doing odd little things; but, hey, the filmmakers liked it and they kept it in and that was it. I never forgot Patrick's name and when I saw it last week in the obituary, I thought, "What a shame." Because he was a fine actor.

Guillén: How was it working with Rock Hudson?

Borgnine: Rock Hudson was fun. He was delightful, very quiet, unassuming, and he had his little boys around him every now and then; but, that was about it. Working with him was just another nice actor to work with. Hey, listen, he did his job and he did it well and that's got it covered.

Guillén: Exactly. Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Rock Hudson—you've worked with just about everybody, haven't you?

Borgnine: Just about, yeah.

Guillén: Is there anyone you haven't worked with that you wish you could have worked with?

Borgnine: There have been so many people, character actors, that I've worked with that don't mean anything to anyone anymore; but, they were the ones who made the films. They were the ones who made the actors look good. Looking back, I ask, "Where are those people today?" There's nobody around. It's very rarely that you find a good character actor anymore. I've been asked, "Well, who would play you?" I can't think of anyone who could play me; can you? Where are the Gary Coopers of today? And the Jimmy Stewarts?

Guillén: You went through a period of being cast in big-budget disaster films, of which The Poseidon Adventure is one of my favorites. I loved your character Mike Rogo in that film and his abiding love for his wife Linda, played by Stella Stevens. What was it like working on that film?

Borgnine: It was wonderful working with all those people. The only one who was a little untowards was Shelley Winters. Of course you expected it from her, y'know? She'd go around complaining, "Why is this? Why is that?" She'd be picking up things and we'd have to yell at her, "Put those things down! The ship is turned over, gosh darn it!" [Laughs.] She was going around picking up whenever the crew had left, y'know? At one point we were going to play a couple that were getting a divorce after 50 years of marriage because finally our kids had grown up. We were on our way to Italy on a cruise and were going to get a divorce when we got back. But things got so bad between her and me. She'd call up and say, "Ernie, I had a terrible night last night." It wasn't terrible at all; she didn't get to bed until about four in the morning, y'know?—out drinking and everything else—so then she'd say, "Would you help me with my lines?" So I'd say, "Sure." I'd help her with her lines and by the time we got to doing the scene, she'd have all her lines down pat and I couldn't remember mine! But I'm good-natured to those who have done wrong. I don't hold any grudges or anything else. I just said, "Damn, it's not your scene so cut it out."

Guillén: That's one of the compliments Robert paid you this morning when we were talking. He greatly respects the fact that you acknowledge all the people you've worked with in Hollywood and throughout the world and that you bear no cynicism nor bitterness towards anyone.

Borgnine: Naw. I have to say that—after paying half a million dollars to this one guy who screwed me up pretty good—I met him one day. He opened up the door, saw me, and he blanched and said, "What are you going to do?" I told him, "I'm not going to do anything; come on out and at least go to lunch." He said, "You mean you're not mad at me?" I said, "What do I gotta be mad for? It's water under the dam, that's all."

Guillén: Another one of my favorite roles of yours was as the cabbie in John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981). What can you tell me about that film?

Borgnine: The thing was that when John Carpenter said to me that he wanted me to play a cabbie, I said, "Hell, John, I could play that with my eyes closed." I said, "How about me playing the warden?" He said, "No, we have Lee Van Cleef playing that part." I said, "Oh Hell, okay, I'll play the cabbie." So we went to see the picture after it was all over with and Harry Dean Stanton and I were watching the film and there was not a word, not a comment, nothing, until the poor cabbie dies in the crash. Somebody shoots me and then I'm dead. And everyone in the audience went, "Awwwwwww……" That's when we realized everyone loved the cabbie! Of course the film went on to include some wild chases. It's a great film. I loved it.

Guillén: It's a film that's a lot of fun.

Borgnine: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. It was wonderful making it and, of course, Carpenter was a sweetheart among sweethearts; he couldn't do enough for you.

Guillén: Well, Ernie, we need to wrap up but I want to thank you so much for taking a walk down memory lane with me today. God bless you. I look forward to seeing you in your next films.

Borgnine: I hope we can sit down one day and have a cup of coffee or do something together.

Guillén: Sounds great to me.

Borgnine: And listen, the best to you in 2009. God bless ya. Thank you, Mike, bye-bye.

Cross-published on

Thursday, January 22, 2009


It's that time. Deadline. Time to swallow down your bitter cup of joe to go. Time to stoke up a Camel straight and rake the rim of your fedora. Time to straighten the seams on your nylons and add yet more scarlet to your pursed lips. Time to load the revolver with bullets and to slip the switchblade in your handbag. Time to choke in the boldface headlines of page one of The Noir City Sentinel before heading out into a world that's incorrigibly corrupt and where a chump knows that even change doesn't come free. Not that the newspaper really warns you about anything new that you have to face once you leave your railroad apartment; it's just a mirror, after all, reflecting a psychotic world escaped and still at large, full of criminals, kingpins and hoods, molls and voluptuous dames limned with lamé and seductive danger. That's right. Now you're getting it. Bullets will fly Friday night January 23 when the seventh edition of the best film noir festival in the world makes deadline at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco—make that Noir City—California. The presses won't stop until February 1, 2009. The theme of this year's festival is Newspaper Noir, with many of the films set in the world of newspapers, or, in some cases, publishing or radio. "Come see how mid-20th-century media stack up against today's fourth estate," Noir City programmers Eddie Muller and Anita Monga entice.

Muller and Monga have made a special effort to have Noir City's nightly double bills (and for the first time separate Saturday matinees) reflect the traditional programming of theaters in the 1940s. To that end, they sought out rare, legitimate B films—shorter movies that were intentionally made to fill out the second half of a double bill. "I think this will probably be as close as you're going to get to actually going to the movies in 1948," says Muller.

"Making a special appearance at this year's festival will be 1950s favorite Arlene Dahl, who will appear for an onstage interview between screenings of two of her favorite films, made back-to-back in 1956: Slightly Scarlet (based on the novel Love's Lovely Counterfeit by James M. Cain) and the rarely screened femme-fatale classic Wicked as They Come."

To begin my hack journalist coverage of this year's Noir City Film Festival, I asked TCM host Robert Osborne to reminisce on Arlene Dahl.

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm sure you're aware that here in San Francisco we have our Noir City Film Festival where film noir classics are shown? The festival's theme this year is journalism—which somewhat links in to TCM's thematic approach [for "The 31 Days of Oscar"]—and the festival's main guest this year is going to be actress Arlene Dahl. I was wondering if you've ever met Arlene?

Robert Osborne: Arlene is a great friend of mine actually. She's one of my best friends.

Guillén: Oh really? That's true?

Osborne: I just had dinner with her the night before last. She's a terrific lady and she's always been a better actress than she got credit for because she's so beautiful. But she did some films like Slightly Scarlet (1956) with Rhonda Fleming and John Payne. She's very good in that and she was wonderful in Woman's World (1954) with Clifton Webb and Lauren Bacall. She kind of stole that film actually. She's wonderful in a movie called Wicked As They Come (1956)—which was done in England—and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), the first one with James Mason; she's very good in that—

Guillén: —That's where I first saw her—

Osborne: I've always felt she was an underrated actress and she's a lovely person. She's also knowledgeable about film and about working in film. She's a great gift for San Francisco to have live on stage.

Guillén: I'm very much looking forward to the chance to talk to her. If you were me, would there be anything you would ask her? About Slightly Scarlet, let's say?

Osborne: I would ask her maybe why she feels that when Slightly Scarlet came out, the film was not particularly acknowledged as anything special but now it's acquired a cult following. I would ask her why she thinks that's happening. Also, I would ask her if she thinks a film can truly be film noir when it's been filmed in color.

Cross-published on Twitch.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TCM: 31 DAYS OF OSCAR—The Evening Class Interview With Robert Osborne

True to my own thematic heart, this year Turner Classic Movies (TCM) approaches the Oscar® season with its annual "31 Days of Oscar" organized as a university curriculum, with Academy Award®-winning and nominated films representing such a wide array of departments as economics and biology to music appreciation and world history. As film host and historian Robert Osborne has specified, "In case you wonder why we call our Academy Award® salute '31 Days of Oscar' and extend it three days past the 28 days of February, no college degree is required to learn the reason. The answer is simple. When we began our Oscar® salutes in 1995, the Academy Awards® were presented every March which has 31 days. Then in 2004, the award month was changed to February, so we changed too, but decided to extend our salute as well to continue delivering a full "31 days" of the best of the best." As the official biographer of the Academy Awards®, Osborne is full of such facts and I welcomed the opportunity to talk with him once more; it's always a genuine pleasure.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Hey, Robert, a pleasure to speak with you. Happy New Year!

Robert Osborne: Thank you. You too. Happy Obama Year!

Guillén: Yeah! Keeping in mind the theme of this year's Oscar® salute, should I address you as Professor Osborne?

Osborne: I think "Dr." might be appropriate.

Guillén: Speaking of this year's university theme, how was that developed? Did you have much to do with that?

Osborne: I didn't have anything to do with that. Credit goes to our programming department. We like to have a different take on the Oscars® every year in how we present the films. The one thing we want to emphasize is that this is a college that's fun to go to. I went to college and I didn't have that great a time so the idea of going to college for a month isn't my idea of necessarily a great time until I realized what college was like in those old movies. People sing and dance all day. Nobody really goes to school. No tests, or any of that. But it's a fun way to focus on the film's themes rather than the stars or any other kind of connection. We're giving it a go this year to see how people like it.

Guillén: One of the things I find instructive about TCM's programming is precisely this strategy of thematic programming, whereby it's revealed that movies can be accessed and read in many different ways.

Osborne: Absolutely! I couldn't agree more. That's the great thing about it. The magic of movies is that you can see the same movie three or four times; but—if you're looking at it from a different angle—it's like a new movie sometimes. If you're looking at it because it's a Katherine Hepburn film as opposed to a film directed by George Kukor as opposed to a film adapted from a Broadway play and is now a movie—or any other aspect of it—it does give a different focus and can make that movie constantly interesting.

Guillén: I understand you have 25-28 new titles you're introducing into the TCM repertory this year?

Osborne: Yeah, we have some really interesting stuff. That's another thing about our programming that I do like: we constantly keep adding to our own library that we own and leasing films for periods of time. Whenever you look at our
Now Playing guide or go to our website, you're not seeing just the same titles all the time. This year we have, for instance—which we've never had before—My Left Foot (1989) with Daniel Day Lewis, which I love, and the 1938 Pygmalion—the original My Fair Lady—which we've never shown before and which is such a great movie. We've added some movies from the '90s like Boyz N the Hood (1991), and Bugsy (1991) with Warren Beatty. We're also adding Pretty Baby (1978) with Brooke Shields, Carnal Knowledge (1971), and we've also got Elia Kazan's first film A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) and a couple of very charming Paramount comedies from the '40s; one's called Take A Letter, Darling (1942) with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray and No Time For Love (1943) with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. You mix those in with Gone With the Wind (1939), Ace In the Hole (1951), The China Syndrome (1979), and Casablanca (1942), it makes for a great mix of films.

Guillén: It certainly does! I likewise appreciate that you include international titles. I'm specifically looking forward to Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956) and René Clément's Gervaise (1957).

Osborne: It's going to be great. We're going to have a good time.

Guillén: In your capacity as the "official biographer" of the Academy Awards®, I was wondering if you could help me confirm or deny a rumor?

Osborne: I'll try.

Guillén: It's my understanding that the Oscar® statuette was designed by art director Cedric Gibbons and that—during the time that he was designing the statuette—his wife Dolores Del Rio was entertaining an out-of-town guest, namely Emiliano "El Indio" Fernandez, who—rumor has it—served as Gibbons' model. Do you know anything about that?

Osborne: I don't. That's not any point of the story that I've heard. It's entirely possible. But what I do know is that—when they were having their first get-together and the Academy was established to keep the labor unions from coming in, the Academy was there to arbitrate any labor problems; they didn't want the industry to be unionized. But by the time the Academy really got rolling, the unions had come in. When they started emphasizing one of their "little ideas" to give awards for the best performances of actors and actresses, when they started concentrating on that, they had a meeting in which the Board of Governors and other people were trying to decide what kind of award to give. Would they give a scroll? A sheet of paper? A plaque? Supposedly, Cedric Gibbons on a tablecloth at that very meeting sat down and sketched out the statuette that they give out to this day. When they went to the next step is what you'd be talking about and I have no idea of that process. It's a very intriguing idea. I've never really thought that maybe he did have a model to finalize the sculpture. Oscar® is supposedly a nude soldier standing on a reel of film with a crusader's sword; that's its basic concept.

Guillén: Does the Academy Awards® have an archive in Los Angeles accessible to the public?

Osborne: Oh sure! They're a library. They've got that. But the reason why I'm wondering about your question is because the book that I wrote for the Academy—
80 Years of the Oscar—was through the help of their researchers and your question is something that has never come up so I'm not sure if they have that information.

Guillén: I was just curious if Cedric Gibbons left any of his original drawings of the statuette or anything like that within the archives?

Osborne: I don't believe there are. There may be and you could certainly find out by calling the Academy library. They're most helpful. I'm not sure if you've dealt with them before?

Guillén: I haven't; but, I'm curious to do so. Also, in your capacity as the official biographer of the Academy, you likewise serve as a red carpet greeter each year at the ceremony. What does that entail?

Osborne: What it entails is being the first one to greet them when they come in and make them feel welcome before they head down this red carpet, which—when you're standing there—looks like it goes on a mile and a half with thousands of people screaming and yelling in the bleachers on the other side. I welcome them on behalf of the Academy and make them feel welcome and comfortable, say a few words, and also announce them on the loudspeaker so that not only the press on the red carpet but the fans in the bleachers know they've arrived. I make a presentation of that. The first year I did it was a little nerve wracking; but, this will be my fourth year and I had a great time last year.

Guillén: As a fan, let's say, is there anybody you look forward to meeting this year on the red carpet?

Osborne: Well, you know, all of them I must say. I really do enjoy the whole thing. The Meryl Streeps of the world always come with something to say and they're always very pleasant; it's just a very enjoyable experience. It's nice to meet new people I haven't met before.

By the way, I just looked it up and the reason I'm questioning the Dolores Del Rio / Cedric Gibbons connection with the Oscar® statuette is because they were married in August 1930, so she wasn't his wife at the time the statuette was designed. This was all put together in 1927-28. Del Rio didn't get divorced from her previous husband until June of 1928. She may have been running around with Cedric Gibbons at that point but it's entirely possible that she wasn't. She certainly wasn't married to him at the time when the first Oscars® were given out.

Guillén: Final question here, Dr. Osborne: It's my understanding that this year the Academy has decided to pay tribute not only to those films which have been considered by the Academy for awards; but, that a clip reel has been prepared to honor films which the moviegoing audience has loved and which have not been considered for awards by the Academy. Do you have any thoughts on that populist tip of the hat?

Osborne: That's certainly viable. Movies belong to everybody. The Academy tries to honor the best that's out there; but, there's no reason why they shouldn't say that Dumb and Dumber was popular with the public even if it didn't score any Academy Awards®.

Guillén: Thank you, Robert.

Osborne: It's always a pleasure talking with you. Enjoy the Oscars® yourself!

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

TCM Tribute to Ricardo Montalban

Ricardo Montalban passed away Wednesday, January 14, at the age of 88. Lorenza Muñoz has written a fine obituary and career overview for the L.A. Times, accompanied by a fantastic photo gallery. Claire Dederer and Bruce Weber have done the honors for the New York Times. Both obits acknowledge Montalban's contributions to stage and screen, as well as the opportunities created for Latinos by way of his activism. His performance in the film noir classic Border Incident remains one of my all-time favorites as, of course, is his characterization of Khan Noonien Singh, arch nemesis to Star Trek's Captain Kirk.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will dedicate the entire daytime lineup for Friday, January 23, 2009 to pay tribute to Montalban. The collection features musical pairings with Esther Williams in Fiesta (1947) and Neptune's Daughter (1949), as well as dramatic roles in Border Incident (1949) and Battleground (1949).

The following is the complete schedule for TCM's January 23 tribute to Ricardo Montalban (PT):

4:30AM Fiesta (1947)—In his first leading role, Montalban plays a young man whose parents want him to become a toreador, but he is more interested in music. Esther Williams and Cyd Charisse also star in this musical shot on location in Mexico.

6:30AM Neptune's Daughter (1949)—Once again teaming with Esther Williams, Montalban plays a millionaire playboy trying to win the affections of a bathing suit designer. This colorful musical features the Oscar®-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

8:15AM Latin Lovers (1953)—Montalban vies for the affections of a wealthy heiress played by Lana Turner in this lush, tropical musical directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

10:00AM Border Incident (1949)—This early look at the issue of illegal immigration features Montalban and George Murphy in a tense story of agents out to stop a ring smuggling Mexicans across the border.

11:30AM Battleground (1949)—Montalban gives an outstanding performance as a Mexican-American soldier fighting in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. Van Johnson and John Hodiak co-star.

1:30PM Across the Wide Missouri (1951)—In this pioneer epic starring Clark Gable, Montalban plays a young Indian war chief out to prevent a band of pioneers from reaching their destination. John Hodiak co-stars.

3:00PM The Singing Nun (1966)—In this true story, Montalban plays a warm-hearted priest who helps a guitar-strumming Belgian nun spread her music to the world. Debbie Reynolds stars, along with Greer Garson, Agnes Moorehead and Chad Everett.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

CHEThe Evening Class Interview With Steven Soderbergh

As a long-time admirer of Steven Soderbergh's unique genius as a maverick filmmaker, I was one of the many who thronged to see the roadshow edition of Che at its Toronto International screening, and—despite considerable distraction at the festival—felt compelled to write Che up right away (here). I've since seen it as well in its theatrical version, which caused me to grumble about the cuts that had been made to shorten its length when Michael Hawley announced IFC's decision to extend the traveling roadshow to San Francisco, where it is currently playing at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema.

Despite Mick LaSalle's anemic (if not insulting) miscomprehension of the film in his "review" for the San Francisco Chronicle, this is a cinematic experience not to be missed, whether afterwards you weigh in favorably or not. As a respectful aside, let me be quick to assert that it is LaSalle's fearlessness to foist an opinion that makes his reviews readable, even if often laughable. But let me also caution that at a time when San Francisco is experiencing the diminishment of its ethnic diversity in favor of a commodified demographic, LaSalle scores no points with me as a Chicano by asserting: "To be specific, it's possible to watch all four hours and 17 minutes of this picture and still not be sure why Soderbergh told this man's story, why he thought it was worth such epic treatment and why he handled his subject with such glowing veneration. If Soderbergh made as idol-worshiping an epic about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln—actual heroes with tangible, positive legacies—people would gag at the naive treatment. Perhaps with Che, the hope is that audiences might be confused or browbeaten into reverence, into just assuming they're missing something." [Emphasis added.] If anyone's missing anything, it's Mick LaSalle, from the get-go. In his presumption that Che is hagiographic propaganda, he fails to notice that it's not, and for very good reason. Whereas posing the "tangible, positive legacies" of Presidents Washington and Lincoln against revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara is like comparing apples and oranges. Mick LaSalle commits the most grievous of errors possible for a film reviewer, which is to use the holy "we" to guise a misguided personal opinion. He can do better than to guise personal distaste as critical acumen. It's no wonder that the true "we"—audiences—are fed up with film critics who deny them the sovereignty of their own intelligence. Then again, as a film critic, perhaps LaSalle feels he has left more of a "tangible, positive legacy" than the rest of us? We have a word for him in my community: pendejo.

Of course Steven Soderbergh breathes in such contention like fresh air because—as he puts it—it makes the project alive. Contrary to LaSalle's presumptions of hagiography, Soderberg has come to his "biopic" of Che as an admitted agnostic. I believe he should be taken at his word. Shortly before yesterday's premiere of the roadshow, Soderbergh sat down with me at the Prescott Hotel to discuss his controversial diptych. [Illustration of Soderbergh courtesy of Charles Burnes, The Believer.]

* * *

Michael Guillén: I'm working on an essay to contribute to a volume on film festival culture and the topic I've decided to tackle is that unruly beast: the Q&A session, which I consider to be the flint spark between filmmaker and audience. I'd like to know generally what your experience has been with Q&As and, specifically—because I understand you weathered a somewhat contentious Q&A at your Ziegfield Theatre screening in Manhattan—how the Q&As for Che are going?

Stephen Soderbergh: That's a good place to start because the Q&As for Che have not been like any other Q&As I've ever done; people stand up and yell at you. I love that. I feel like that's at least alive. A lot of times you're either telling people things they already know or they sense and—as I get further into my career—I find it more difficult to describe how I work or how things are done. My question is always, "What are they looking to get out of a Q&A?" Because when I attend a Q&A for another filmmaker—and I've been the person interviewing filmmakers many times—in that case, I try to put myself in the audience's position. I ask the filmmaker questions that I want to know the answers to and I guess that's what an audience is looking for as well.

Guillén: Have you learned from your audiences by such interchange?

Soderbergh: Well, it's always interesting to see what lands with them, what imprints, especially in a movie like Che, because it's not always what you think. They don't always respond in a way that you would anticipate. I'm lucky in the sense that—especially on this film—there's a lot of stuff to talk about that goes beyond the typical, "What's Brad like?" So I've been pretty lucky in that regard. I find the whole thing very odd. I'm not sure if over the past 20 years the extreme level of demystification that's been going on with regard to moviemaking is a good thing or not. I think it's a great thing if you want to make movies—I wish I'd had access as a teenager to the stuff that's out there now—but, for the audience, I can't say that it's a good thing.

Guillén: I'm aware that this coming Monday the Sundance Film Festival will be screening sex, lies & videotape in honor of its vigesimal anniversary. When I first heard that news, it played oddly in my mind. I opened up the first video store in the San Joaquin Valley back in the '80s—which doesn't really seem that long ago—and yet already the VHS cassette is officially dead. It's amazing that within the space of 20 years even the title of your film has become anachronistic.

Soderbergh: Yeah, right.

Guillén: Is there something you're going to present to your Sundance audience to commemorate that 20-year span and your personal impact on indie film making? Any commentary on current reports that indie filmmaking has somewhat capsized or collapsed?

Soderbergh: Well, I haven't seen sex, lies & videotape in a long time so—if I decide to sit through it—that will be an interesting experience. In terms of what Spader's character is focused on, the Internet has made his activity seem positively quaint. Not that the movie was ever designed to be shocking really; but, what you can get in two clicks now makes him look like a Victorian. That will be interesting just to see how that part of the movie comes across. And, of course, the hair.

As for the independent film movement, there's no question that it's contracted. Every time somebody predicts that it's dead, though, a movie pops and sort of resuscitates it. Its coming-back-from-the-grave potential is wired into the DNA of the independent film movement so I never worry about it too much. There was a period a few years ago when I was asked to look at Memento. This was after it had shown in festivals and after every distributor had turned it down. The movie couldn't get released. I went to a screening of it and came out of that screening thinking, "It's over. The independent film movement is over if this movie can't get released." What happened was the financiers formed their own distribution company, put the movie out, and made a lot of money. It became a huge hit and one of those films that revived the movement for a while. So while we're lighting a funeral pyre to the independent film movement, I know there's somebody somewhere in a room making something that six months from now we're going to be talking about. I never really give up on the independent film movement.

Guillén: Yesterday I was talking to Jeffrey Katzenberg about 3-D technology and he was asserting that in the very near future every single movie is going to be in 3-D and everyone will own their individual 3-D sunglasses for watching films in moviehouses. I'm aware that you're bringing out a 3-D movie musical Cleo about the life of Cleopatra?

Soderbergh: Trying, yeah.

Guillén: Has the economy thrown a wrench into the works?

Soderbergh: No, it's actors' schedules. I was going to film it this Spring but it's been pushed into the Fall. I agree with Jeffrey that 3-D technology is going to become a viable tool and an option for filmmakers; but, I don't think every movie is going to be made in 3-D. I might be wrong; but, I don't think so. Still, there's no question that we're going to see real penetration with that format within the next five years.

Guillén: Will you be authoring Cleo in 3-D?

Soderbergh: Oh yeah, yeah. I think it's great. The one thing they haven't sorted out is the cost.

Guillén: It's quite expensive; something like $1.6 million per minute I understand.

Soderbergh: No, I mean the cost of having everybody exhibiting in 3-D. The exhibitors can't afford it and you can't make them pay for it. That changeover is expensive.

Guillén: What I found to be Katzenberg's most persuasive argument, and one I could get behind, is that—with home entertainment systems having developed as much as they have—something needs to be done to draw audiences back into the moviehouses.

Soderbergh: Absolutely.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask about your strategizing the rather interesting premise of the traveling Che roadshow. I've seen Che now both in the roadshow edition and its theatrical edition and definitely vote for the roadshow—I think Che should be seen all at once—and was disappointed, frankly, that the theatrical release removed the introductory maps. I feel Americans are generally so geographically impaired that the maps served a necessary function in situating the films' narratives.

Soderbergh: They certainly help. But I wanted there to be something about the roadshow that was specific to the roadshow and so that was one of the rewards for sitting in one place for 4½ hours.

Guillén: Along with this lovely program you're offering your roadshow customers. Can you speak to Mary Ellen Mark's contribution to the program?

Soderbergh: As anyone who's into photography knows, she's an icon of her own and I've known who she was since I was taking photographs in high school. Laura Bickford, Che's producer, is a friend of Mary Ellen's and she said to me, "Look, this whole production is such a unique circumstance. We really need to think if there's a way to document it that's as unconventional as the movie." I said, "Yeah, I think there has to be." So Laura said, "Let me call Mary Ellen and see if she'll come out and shoot." She agreed. She did it just to do it. There's no up side for her, really; but, it was a great way to memorialize the experience. To have another artist come in with her own take on what was going on was fascinating for me; just to see what she chose to shoot.

The booklet idea was something that I stole from Francis Ford Coppola. When Apocalypse Now was released in its 70mm engagements, there were no credits and you got a printed program. That became a big collector's item. A buddy of mine has one that I've coveted ever since because I lived in Baton Rouge and I didn't get to see it in that format. But I started thinking, "That's what we should do. We can't have 15 minutes of credits on this thing. I should get waivers so we don't have to put in credits. We'll use Mary Ellen's photographs and do up a really cool special souvenir." People really like it. I've always looked at the roadshow as like going to a concert and that you should have a piece of merchandise to prove that you went to the concert.

Guillén: You've made a personal appearance with the roadshow at the Ziegfield in Manhattan and now here in San Francisco; have you done so elsewhere?

Soderbergh: We open today in nine cities with the roadshow and then I think there's going to be another wave later in the month and I'm sure I'll go somewhere. I've already been to most of the cities where the roadshow is touring to do press.

Guillén: As a Chicano, of course, when I first heard you were helming this project, I was as excited as I was about Julie Taymor directing Frida. Both Frida Kahlo and Che Guevara, along with the Virgin of Guadelupe for that matter, are commodified icons whose iconicity is exactly their idealized advocacy. But I want to be up front about this: when I first saw Che in Toronto, I was surprised by the fact that I didn't get emotional watching it. Some critics have disparaged the film as "cold"—which I think is being used too harshly—but, I am intrigued by the film's temperate sensibility. If I think about films by, let's say, such directors as Ron Howard or Clint Eastwood, I consider them "hot" films in the sense that they are emotionally manipulative and nearly formulaic in how they intentionally push all the right buttons to provoke all the right emotions. Che, by contrast, feels completely different for being emotionally distant. Can you talk about why you took it in that direction? [Painting of Frida Kahlo, courtesy of Rupert Garcia.]

Soderbergh: Because—based on all the research—that was the feeling that I got of him, even from people that were close to him. I felt it would have been—not only a mistake—but, immoral to present him differently than my impression of him, which was that—from his writing and from people who knew him—Che was distant.

Guillén: And yet his humanity came into play for me by discovering he was an asthmatic, which I didn't know. As an asthmatic myself, I'm aware of how complicated that can be.

Soderbergh: And completely debilitating! No, his humanity is in the fact that he got up every day and did what he did. So, yeah, right, the movie is not about feelings. It's not. And that's a problem for a lot of people.

Guillén: I read in your recent Esquire interview that one of the things you most appreciated about Che Guevara was precisely his work ethic, which is commensurable to your own.

Soderbergh: Well, sort of. Certainly, the fact that he placed being a revolutionary above everything and everyone else and the way in which other things are excluded when you feel that way, that was something I felt I could understand: the total preoccupation and what that does to people around you. Many descriptions of Che I've heard sounded familiar to me. I don't think you could find anybody that I've worked with who would say that I was unfair or indecisive; but, I also don't think you'd find anybody that would say, "He's such a warm personality." [Laughs.] Know what I mean? That's what really came across to me about Che: the people who loved him admitted that he was not an embraceable person.

Guillén: With regard to your research for the film, you traveled to Cuba?

Soderbergh: We went five times.

Guillén: You met Castro?

Soderbergh: I didn't. Benicio did for two minutes.

Guillén: I'm familiar with Campeche, which you used as a stand-in for Santa Clara. How did that come about?

Soderbergh: It was so frustrating to not be able to shoot in Cuba.

Guillén: Was that due to the Cuban government or to our own government's embargo?

Soderbergh: Our embargo. I can't work there. I can visit there as part of a cultural exchange, but I can't work there. It was frustrating to have to recreate things that are there and that looked pretty similar to how they looked 50 years ago. Santa Clara was a real problem because it was a certain-sized town and had a certain look. We scouted all around that area of Mexico, went looking in five or six towns in the Veracruz/Yucatan area, and Campeche fortunately had the elements that we needed and they were open to having us come in and change things around a little bit. It turned out to work very well for us, but it took four to five months of scouting to determine that Campeche was going to work.

Guillén: Let's discuss the aesthetics behind the diptych, these two films that—though they mirror each other—are visually quite distinct from one another. When I reviewed the films after Toronto—adjusting first of all to the fact that I wasn't emotionally devasted as I had assumed I was going to be and that, instead, I was intellectually intrigued by what I'd learned from watching the films—I noted that one of the things I learned was the problematics of trying to stage guerrilla warfare in varying environments. The two films did a masterful job of presenting that problem, not only through the narrative, but in the look of the films. Can you speak to how you used the Red One to create these two quite different looks? The Cuban story was colorful, vibrant, positive, textured with mixed staging, whereas the Bolivian story was still, bleached, dry.

Soderbergh: The first thing I was trying to do was to recreate the voice of the two texts that I was working from: his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and then the Bolivian diaries. Reminiscences is obviously written after the fact with much hindsight and historical perspective. The voice in that book is very different from the voice in the Bolivian diaries, which was contemporaneous and had no perspective at all about what's going on outside. The first thing I was trying to do was to come up with an aesthetic that would duplicate the difference in those two voices. In the case of Cuba—since it's written from the perspective of the victor; the whole thing has the patina of success—I was looking for a more traditional Hollywood frame, the Cinemascope frame, with classical compositions, a steady camera, vibrant colors, a warm palette, more inviting….

Guillén: I described Che: El Argentino as possessing a glamorous sheen.

Soderbergh: Absolutely! Then in Part Two, I wanted a sense of foreboding, a little bit of a jagged quality, a sense that "I don't know where this scene is going to go", just an uneasiness that comes from having the camera on your shoulder and the taller frame, which is a less glossy frame to my mind, and a color palette that was muted. When I was talking to the production designer
Antxón Gómez about the first film, I said, "We have green in both places but in Cuba it's green with a lot of yellow in it and in Bolivia it's green with a lot of blue in it." He knew not to put anything in the first film that really should belong in the second film and vice versa. We avoided warm colors in the second one and cold colors in the first. Again, these were all technical decisions that were based on my trying to recreate the sound of his voice in those two books. That's where that whole idea started. Now, though there have obviously been many other roadshow releases in the past—the distant past mostly—unfortunately, I think this is the first time that the poor projectionist has to change lenses between films. During the intermission he has to go into the projection booth, remove the scope lens off the projector, and put the flat lens on.

Guillén: [Shaking my fist angrily in the air] Damn you, Soderbergh!

Soderbergh: [Chuckles.] I can tell you right now that they also have to change the shape of the screen and I know they're not happy.

Guillén: Speaking of you having the camera on your shoulder, sell me on The Red One.

Soderbergh: It's a game changer. They won't tell me exactly how they're doing what they're doing; but, there's some type of proprietary algorithm that makes this sensor different than any sensor I've ever seen before. The way it sees light is totally unique. It doesn't look like any other digital camera I've ever seen and it just keeps getting better. We were using version 1 on Che and they're now on version 18. I've shot two films with it since Che and I can tell you it's improving by leaps every few months. In a couple of years I think it will have the latitude of film. When you combine that with its size and the ease of using it, to me it's like a fantasy. It's like literally the guy crawled into my head and designed exactly the camera that I needed. By the end of the year The Red will be bringing out a smaller camera called The Scarlet, which is a 3K camera the size of your hand. There's a 5K camera called The Epic which is coming out that's also smaller than The Red. This guy's going to take over the world, I'm tellin' ya. It's unbelievable what he's been able to do.

I wish somebody would do a case study of The Red because it is a textbook example of problem solving. The corporations can't innovate the way an individual with the right amount of resources can innovate. In this case,
Jim Jannard—who designed and built this camera—is Howard Hughes. It was his idea, his money, he handpicked the team to put the thing together, and there was no interference. It was done entirely to his specifications. That's how leaps are made! And it's the reason why the larger companies who've made digital motion picture cameras are now behind; they're corporations and that's not how new ideas get born. So it's not surprising to me that he's done it; the fact that he's done it is a real lesson to people who want to innovate.

Guillén: Is there a reason why you credit yourself under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews when you do your own cinematography?

Soderbergh: Yeah. If you look at the billing blocks for my movies, I'm a big believer that having your name once works as "directed by"….

Guillén: And it's enough?

Soderbergh: It's enough! In point of fact, listing your name more than once actually dilutes your impact as opposed to increasing it. In a lot of these billing blocks, you see these directors whose names appear five times. They have a possessory credit, they've taken a producer credit, they've got a writing credit, whatever, everywhere you look you see their name. To me that dilutes it. That makes the director credit seem less interesting.

When this came up, it was two years after my dad died and my dad was the one who really gave me the movie bug. His first two names were Peter Andrew and I thought, "This will give me more pleasure seeing that name than it would seeing my own name." Also, when I edit my own films, I use Mary Ann Bernard and that is my mother's maiden name. Everybody's covered.

Guillén: My final question: having worked with this material for such a long time, what can you say about Ernesto "Che" Guevara? What have you come away with from this project knowing about this man?

Soderbergh: Oh, that he would probably hate me. [Laughs.]

Guillén: He'd have no use for you?

Soderbergh: There would be no place for me in the society that he was building.

Cross-published on