ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
What to Watch When You’re Stuck in the House
I’ve both seen and heard a number of pieces about what to watch on TV when you’re stuck in the house, as most of us are at this moment, but no one has recommended my approach, which I believe is at least somewhat unique. Big film critics (if there are such a thing anymore) from large publications all go through the list of what’s presently streaming or will soon be streaming on Netflix, Prime, possibly Hulu, and possibly PBS. Yeah? So what? Thanks for putting in five minutes of research.
At least the New York Times tried a bit harder and suggested checking out the Library of Congress, which has thousands and thousands of movies, although mostly shorts of every size, age and shape going back to the very first copyrighted movie, Thomas Edison’s 22-second Record of a Sneeze produced in 1894— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wnOpDWSbyw — as well as this film, recommended by the New York Times, called In the Street from 1948, where James Agee, a particularly interesting, talented, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and co-screenwriter of two terrific movies, The African Queen and Night of the Hunter, went out on the New York City streets with two female colleagues and shot exactly what they saw, ending up with a twelve minute document. This kind of movie, with no writing at all, just images of reality in 1948, I can easily watch because it transports me back to that time simply because it’s real, but admittedly, it’s not for all tastes. If you want to watch the very first movie ever made, which isn’t in the Library of Congress, it’s the 9-second long Roundhay Garden Scene made by Louis Le Prince in 1888— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3FYc6UTtHg . If anyone can be considered the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Le Prince. He built three different models of movie cameras, the third being the forerunner of what a movie camera really is, then got on a train for Paris with his camera and was never seen again.
Undoubtedly more than anything else, I consider myself a truly expert movie watcher. There are absolutely millions of people who watch a lot more TV and TV shows than me, but not movies. And since I’ve kept a list my whole life of every movie I’ve ever seen from beginning to end—if I bail out at any point, even 90 minutes into a 110 minute movie, it doesn’t count—and as of last night I’ve seen 5,243 movies, so no one can say I’ve wasted my life.
Having watched my favorite movies over and over again; some, like: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, Raging Bull, Love & Death, Annie Hall, Barfly, The Last Detail, Mrs. Miniver, Patton, From Here to Eternity, The Magnificent Ambersons, Black Narcissus, Rocky and Unforgiven, I’ve seen so many times that I know much of the dialogue by heart. Here are two utterly unnecessary examples (which I can’t help but include to prove my credentials as a geek). When I was in post-production on the Hercules pilot movie that I directed, Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur, I was assigned a ridiculously slow editor. To amuse myself during the many long hours, as well in an attempt to goose this editor to work faster, I just kept repeating a run of dialogue from early into Lawrence of Arabia, when he and his guide, Tafas, bed down for the night in the desert beneath a canopy of glittering stars. Note: I do this from memory with no reference.
Tafas: Truly, you are a British officer, from Cairo? You rode here from Cairo?
Lawrence: No. It’s 700 miles. I took a boat.
Tafas: But you are from Britain? Truly?
Tafas: Britain, it is a desert country?
Lawrence: No, it’s a fat country, full of fat people.
Tafas: You are not fat.
Lawrence: No, I’m different.
When I was directing Hercules I had the enormous honor of directing Anthony Quinn, the most famous actor I’ve ever worked with. The first day he was on the set, seated in a director’s chair in his Zeus costume killing time doing nothing, I stepped up to him and said, “You may well think that I’ve wasted my life, and perhaps I have, but I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia about 500 times and I know your entire big speech as Auda Ibu Tayi. May I do it for you now?” Quinn looked up at me with a mixture of what I construed to be pity and skepticism and said, “Certainly.”
I launched into the speech, combined with a half-assed impression of Quinn bellowing: “I am Auda Ibu Tayi. Does Auda serve? Does Auda Ibu Tayi serve? I carry twenty-three great wounds all got in battle! Seventy-five men I have killed with my own hands, in battle! I burn my enemy's tents, I scatter their flocks! The Turks pay me a golden treasure. Yet I am poor! Why? Because I am a river to my people!” At which point his people loudly ululate and shake their sticks. Anyway, Anthony Quinn grinned at me and sadly shook his head, clearly indicating, Yes, indeed, you really have wasted your life.
In any case, I can no longer bear to watch the same movies over and over again and I must fulfill my constant, unending, insatiable need for movies that I haven’t seen before. My criteria for watching movies is simply this: they don’t have to be new, they just have to be good. Unlike many people I know, I am entirely uninterested in bad movies. I’ve seen several thousand of them and how bad a movie can be doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I swear, I’ve seen at least a thousand movies after which I declared, “ that’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” The old filmmaking expression is, “It’s hard to make a good movie and it’s hard to make a bad movie,” meaning that it’s just hard to make a movie. Having made quite a few myself I can honestly attest to you that while shooting a movie it can all go completely wrong at any time, or as a friend put it, “You hit a bump and all the parts fall off.” Therefore, it’s infinitely easier and far more common to make a bad movie than a good one, so really, why give a shit about bad movies? But making a good movie only happens every now and then, at best 25% of the time, and that’s being kind. Let’s face it, most movies suck, and this isn’t a recent development. Most movies have all ways stunk. Sadly, the percentage of bad movies keeps going up every year.
So, to fill my ravenous gaping maw with more and more good movies all the time, I must search for them. This is called putting in effort, a concept that is presently frowned upon. I was enticed to join streaming Netflix because of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Having seen that I quickly grew to hate everything showing on streaming Netflix and canceled it.
I can generally find something to watch on Amazon Prime Movies, if I really look. I just saw The Silent Enemy (1930), which had no thumbnail poster, I had to search for it. It’s a story about Ojibwa Indians shot entirely on location in upstate New York with a tribe of real Ojibwas. Although it was shot silent, it was released with sound, meaning spoken narration, music, and the occasional sound effect. The made-up part of the story is silly, but most of the film is watching these people live their lives, constantly hunting for deer, beaver, birds (that the women lasso with a tightening noose on the end of a stick). They also kill an attacking bear, then adopt the cute, unruly cubs. The finale of the film is set during an actual caribou migration of about 10,000 caribou all coming over a hill, then the Indians attack the herd with long spears that causes hundreds, perhaps a thousand, caribou to start running as fast as they can in circles while the Indians skewer one every now and then and it falls dead, but the Indians don’t know how many they’ve killed until finally, after quite a long run, the herd finally escapes past them. Maybe they kill ten, a small percentage of the herd, but enough for the tribe to live on for a while. It’s truly a spectacular scene and worth waiting for, although since the whole movie is only 55-minutes long, it’s not a long wait.
I also just saw on Prime The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), which I’d seen many years ago on TV at about the age of fifteen, and found it slow and didn’t like it, but I had a suspicion that it might just be over my head. Upon re-watching it I was right; it was over my fifteen-year-old head. Now, however, I thought it had an appropriately deliberate pace, was well-written and directed, had terrific black and white photography (by the great Oswald Morris), and Richard Burton, Oskar Werner and Clare Bloom are all excellent. And, best of all, I didn’t I foresee the ending.
Also on Prime is Miss Sloane (2016), about a high-end lobbyist in Washington, D.C. who leaves a big firm to join a small firm to lobby for an anti-gun bill. My first impression was, this can’t work. But it did work, and quite well, too. I thought this was Jessica Chastain’s best performance to date and she’s never looked better, John Lithgow is, as usual, good, Sam Waterston is appropriately evil, the direction is extremely solid (by John Madden, a British director who has made several very watchable movies, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and was nominated for an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love), but best of all, Jonathan Perera’s script was smart, had a point, was tricky and I didn’t see where it was going, even though he gives us a really solid clue near the beginning, but I’d forgotten it by the end.
Prime Movies, unlike Netflix, adds older movies to their line-up all the time, many of which I’ve already seen, but some are definitely worth seeing again. They also have a number of post-WWII British films that I hadn’t seen and always seem to enjoy, such as: Carrington, V.C. (also known as Court Martial, 1954) with a serious David Niven in a tense courtroom story. The Gift Horse (1952), about the U.S. selling old, out-of-date battleships to the British at the beginning of WWII, before the lend-lease program, and the story of one ship whose captain, well-played by the stalwart Trevor Howard, the ship’s doctor is James Donald who played the doctor in Bridge on the River Kwai five years later, young Richard Attenborough who is in many of these early British films, as the rowdy crewmate, and has a story I’ve never seen before. As they are called into battle, the ship keeps breaking down and they keep not seeing action. Finally, because the ship is such a piece of junk, they sacrifice it in an exciting final battle scene. Since the film was primarily shot in the studio, there are a lot of special effects, some of which are pretty odd (the credit in the film is “Trick Shots”) and created by the talented British effects wizard, Wally Veevers, who would later do Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s also Journey Together (1945), made during the war about flight training school, starring the extremely young Richard Attenborough, and one of the flight instructors is Edward G. Robinson. The credit on the film is “Made by the Royal Air Force,” but it’s understood that the director was John Boulting, who both before and after the war, into the 1960s, worked with his twin brother, Roy, and the two, who switched off as director or producer, made many watchable movies. Malta Story (1953), another pretty good Royal Air Force movie, shot on location, with Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins (both of whom are in Lawrence of Arabia).
A particularly good film I saw on Prime is The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), directed and written by one of my favorite writer-directors, George Seaton (who grew up in Detroit), won an Oscar for his screenplay for Miracle on 34th Street which he also directed, made many good movies over his long career, then ended his career with an enormous blockbuster that I love, Airport, which started the whole genre of disaster movies. The Counterfeit Traitor stars William Holden, Lilli Palmer and Hugh Griffith (who had recently won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Ben Hur), and is a tense, true story, shot on location, about a civilian businessman wrangled into the British Army as a spy because he regularly flies in and out of Berlin doing business with the Nazi S.S. high command, including Heinrich Himmler. At the end of the film, in a brief scene, a wounded Jewish refugee is played by the very young Klaus Kinski. This is a really top-notch movie.
More good films on Prime are: The Big Country (1958), one of the best westerns ever made, with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, in what I consider is the best performance in his career, Burl Ives in his Oscar-winning role, with a rousing classic score by Jerome Moross, and directed by my favorite director, William Wyler, who also has on Prime his classic comedy, Roman Holiday, also with Gregory Peck, and in her first movie part that won her an Oscar, the ridiculously charming Audrey Hepburn.
The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), a huge hit in its day, John Wayne at his best, and I stole his name in the film, Sgt. Stryker, for my film, Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except (1985), which is not available on Prime, but should be.
Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Annie Hall(1976) and both mine and Woody’s favorite, Love & Death (1975).
Conspiracy (2012), a top-notch HBO film starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, about the infamous 85-minute meeting in a house in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s right hand man at the gestapo, and fifteen mayors of nearby towns, conceive the Final Solution, meaning what do we do with the 1.7 million Jews they’ve rounded up and arrested, that are presently clogging up all of our train stations? In a calm business-like way, they decide there’s only one answer, kill them. But how? They have a few ideas, but decide to figure that out later. This film is actually a remake of a 1984 German film called The Wannsee Conference that’s a better movie than Conspiracy only because it came first and was in German. Both films are chilling and are actually the same length as the real meeting. Kenneth Branagh makes a terrific Heydrich, the only high-ranking Nazi who actually looked like the stereotype of a Nazi; blond and tall.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), about the beautiful actress Hedy Lamarr who was also an brilliant inventor credited with inventing the Frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS), a system for radio guided torpedoes to go undetected. This technology had been dabbled with by the likes of Guglielmo Marconi in 1899, Nikola Tesla in 1903, and the German electronics company, Telefunken, in about 1907, but it was Hedy Lamarr and her inventing partner, George Antheil, an important music composer and pianist of the 1920s, who moved to Hollywood in the ‘30s and scored 30 movies big movies, including The Plainsman for C. B. DeMille (where Anthony Quinn as an Indian got his first big break), who made the FHSS system functional. Of course Hedy and George got completely ripped off by the U.S. Navy and never received a penny for the their patented idea. FHSS is now used in walkie talkies, many radio-controlled devices like drones, and is an integral part of Blue Tooth technology.
But the best resource of all for obscure good movies these days is DVD Netflix, a service I’ve had for about 22 years. DVD Netflix, which is where Netflix started, has about 97% more movies than streaming Netflix and costs the same price (about $15 a month). I get three DVDs a week, with no due date, and I choose them by arbitrarily stopping anywhere in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guides, that contain 26,000 movies, and I read the blurbs on any movie with three, three-and-a-half, or four stars. If I like the blurb, I put the film on a list, then every now and then I visit the DVD Netflix website and update my queue. Every couple of days I go to the mailbox and there’s a red envelope and the chances are pretty high that it will be a good movie.
Here’s a small selection of the good movies that I’ve recently seen from DVD Netflix: Impromptu (1991), with Judy Davis as George Sand, Hugh Grant as Fredric Chopin, Julian Sand as Franz Liszt, and young Emma Thompson. This film is a winner in every department. It’s subject matter interested me, it made me laugh several times and it moved me at the end.
The Post (2017): somehow I didn’t even hear about this movie when it came out and it’s a Steven Spielberg film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. But it’s a perfectly solid movie and has an interesting true story to tell. Streep is great and has a couple of brilliant moments, and Tom Hanks is pretty much always good.
Aurora Borealis (2006), a smart, well-written, particularly well-acted low-budget film made in Minneapolis, with Donald Sutherland giving a great performance, Louise Fletcher, Juliette Lewis, though the leads and everyone else is unknown, but they’re all good.
Never Let Me Go (2010), a creepy, simple sci-fi story with a good young cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightly.
The Music Never Stopped (2011), based on a true story by Dr. Oliver Sachs, who also wrote the book that the fascinating movie Awakenings with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro is based. In this film is about a young man who runs away from home in the early 1970s because his father (J. K. Simmons, Oscar-winner for Whiplash) is a tyrant who hates rock & roll, the young man’s passion (he’s a musician). The young man mysteriously reappears twenty years later with a head injury and is unable to speak. As a last resort, a music therapist (Julia Ormond) is brought in and discovers that if she plays music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the young man comes to life and can talk, mainly about the music. His dad begins playing old rock & roll all the time to keep him lucid, and comes to like it himself. In a particularly interesting scene, the father takes his son to see the Grateful Dead and they actually got the Dead for the movie. I liked this film a lot.
I could go on and on, and will if this crisis continues. But I hope I’ve made a few recommendations that you find worth following up on.