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Weekly Mishmash: December 28-January 3

Susan Orlean - The Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupThe Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean. As far as magazine journalists go, I’m a big fan of the witty and hyper-aware Susan Orlean. Her 1999 piece on famously awful girl group The Shaggs is one of my all time faves, a beautifully observed look at misplaced hopes and dreams. That and several other quirky profiles (most of which were originally published in The New Yorker throughout the ’90s) are assembled in Bullfighter. For the most part, the articles are fun and interesting and not too terribly dated. I could see all of them working perfectly as magazine pieces (well, maybe not so much the surprisingly boring one about the African king who moonlights as a taxi driver), but reading them all together makes Orlean’s self-awareness annoyingly apparent. Still, there are a few precious gems here. I remember reading the book’s sharp and offbeat profile of ’80s teen queen Tiffany in Rolling Stone way back when, and her description of Tiffany’s face alone has stayed with me for some odd reason — 20 years later! I also enjoyed her profiles of a young woman who works as the sole reporter at a small town newspaper, another woman who runs a store that only sells buttons, and Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers. And don’t forget that Shaggs piece — all of which make this book worth tracking down a cheap used copy for.
Force of Evil (1948). Every New Years Eve that we’ve been together, Christopher and I have a tradition of watching an old (preferably B&W) movie that neither of us has seen before. This year’s choice was the overlooked John Garfield noir Force of Evil. This one was independently produced and filmed on the streets of New York City, giving the tale of underground numbers rackets a gritty immediacy. In many respects, this film is perfectly adequate — even a bit dull at times. It is, however, bolstered by some fine performances. Garfield is as good as I’ve ever seen him, and portly Thomas Gomez oozes sympathy as Garfield’s conflicted racketeer brother. On the feminine side, we have the delicious Marie Windsor doing what she did best (was there ever a more quintessential femme fatale than she?) and the obscure actress Beatrice Pearson has an unusually smart and self-aware presence in the ingénue role.

Maltese Falcon - Humphrey Bogart and Lee Patrick

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Re-watched this in the past week. Still great, although at times I had a hard time following the convoluted plot. John Huston’s script is a wonder. I think what struck me the most this time was how even the smallest of characters have a depth that’s usually missing from films of this period (or ever, really). And even the smallest of those roles are perfectly cast. Take Lee Patrick (pictured above) as Effie Perine, shrewd secretary to Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. She’s fantastic, and the role is actually quite typical — but I could watch an entire movie that revolved around Effie alone. The chemistry between the two actors is mildly flirtatious (if I remember correctly, the pre-Code 1931 Falcon made it clearer that Effie and Sam had a thing going) and a joy to behold. Just one intriguing slice of a film that has many of ’em.
Milk (2008). This was one of the few new films I wanted to see before it leaves theaters, and I wasn’t disappointed at all. Although in many ways it is a typical bio-pic, I loved the way Gus Van Sant weaves actual documentary footage of Harvey Milk’s campaigning to be the first openly gay city official with dramatically re-created scenes. To be honest, the thought of city politics sounds boring as hell on paper, but this story is so unique it can’t help but be super compelling. Sean Penn literally disappears into this role — there were honestly times that I forgot I was watching an actor play a role. He makes Milk human, compassionate, flawed, and identifiably gay without seeming stereotypical or actor-y. The most obvious sign of this film’s success is that it stays compelling even though you know where the story will end up. Tough to pull off, but here it works.
Wanda (1970). Barbara Loden is unique in film history in that she still ranks as one of the few women who produced, directed and starred in her own film. Although ragged and low budget to the extreme, Wanda is still an interesting experience. Loden plays an aimless young woman living in an ugly-ass steel town. Escaping dull married life, she eventually takes up with a placid-looking but mentally unhinged criminal (played by Michael Higgins, probably the only other professional actor in the cast) as he prepares for one last bank heist. Loden punctuates her character’s fatalism by lingering on bland, ’60s mid-American landscapes — many of which reminded me footage in the documentary Salesman from the same time period. At times she lingers a bit too long, sure, but the film is never boring. I found it uniquely fascinating, and as an actor Loden is so low-key that it’s almost subliminal. It’s a shame that she didn’t live long enough to do much else, but I’m happy that we have this to remember her by.

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