Why Did I Just Watch Titanic? Or, Some Thoughts on Grief


Why did I put myself through the emotional upheaval of watching Titanic last night? What compelled me to sit through 194 minutes of tragic romance (the love story) and romanticized tragedy (everything else happening with the sinking ship)? No one agrees to do such a thing in the year 2017 without knowing how the film ends – knowing that the ship is doomed, knowing how the tale of Jack and Rose concludes – yet I chose to watch anyway. Beginning to end, all the way through; I don’t know if I had ever actually done that, although I had certainly seen numerous famous scenes before, especially in the last third of the film.

For the last week and a half I’ve been doing a movie and TV marathon. I’m watching every project with Bill Paxton that I can find. That means Apollo 13, the new “Training Day” series on CBS, even the somewhat obscure thriller Trespass. (I also watched True Lies again, a movie that I don’t especially care for, what with all the sexism, racism and other stereotypes played for guffaws. Paxton’s performance is fabulous, though, playing a used car salesman so skeevy that it makes complete sense when we hear him blasting the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman” on his convertible’s stereo. Wonderful song, but it has the capacity to appear oddly sleazeball-friendly in the wrong context.) (Also, I linked to the video above in a post last week, but here it is again in case you missed it – and it’s funny enough to deserve repeat viewings.) When an actor or musician passes away – David Bowie last year, for example – it is a comfort to me if I am already familiar with a great deal of the person’s work. It makes a difference to have appreciated someone when he was around, you know? But when a performer dies and I wasn’t nearly as well-versed in his oeuvre as I feel I ought to have been, the sadness is exponentially more profound.

Considering the dozen or so times I’ve enjoyed Twister (as seen above) since childhood, it doesn’t make sense why I didn’t follow up with more than a handful of other Bill Paxton movies. Not Weird Science or A Simple Plan or Frailty, not even Aliens (despite how much I love its predecessor, Alien). There is always something so bittersweet about not really discovering an artist’s legacy until after the fact – now every cinematic experience, even silly old True Lies, is tinged with posthumous poignancy.

So again I ask myself: why watch Titanic? Why put myself through the wringer? It’s such a ridiculous, overrated film in many respects. I had forgotten how atrocious the dialogue is (“Jack!” “Rose!” “Where are you, Jack?” “I’m here, Rose!” “Oh, Jack!” etc.) and that many of the supporting actors don’t get enough screen time (even in a three-hour movie) because Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet so thoroughly dominate the story being told. But the point of watching Titanic wasn’t just to roll my eyes at the cheesiness. There is undeniable catharsis in watching a film that is guaranteed to produce buckets of tears, like you can feel OK about the overwhelming sorrow because millions of moviegoers felt it too.

Titanic is a great – or maybe I need to rephrase: important – experience, not because of the quality of the filmmaking but because of the scope of the piece. The masses have always loved disaster films (again: see my love for Twister) and this particular film is one of the most epic of its kind; it’s a spectacle on the grandest scale imaginable. Say what you will about the excessive CGI special effects, but 70s-tastic dramas like The Poseidon Adventure sure don’t come close to James Cameron’s vision of the mighty Titanic foundering at sea in 1912.

So just how does Bill Paxton fit into this discussion of Titanic anyway? He plays Brock Lovett, the treasure hunter whose search for the fabled “Heart of the Ocean” necklace, which was supposedly on board the ship when it sank, leads Old Rose (dear Gloria Stuart!) to him. Paxton has the first and last lines of the movie, a small details that I hadn’t remembered or realized. I also forgot/maybe never knew that his character flaunts a cringeworthy, dirty-blonde almost-mullet, a piratical earring which obviously James Cameron thought was another super cool sartorial choice back in 1997, and a sweater probably plucked from an L.L. Bean winter catalog. But even with that aesthetic hodgepodge, and as jerky as Paxton’s character is during the first twenty minutes, the actor was such a professional that he made me care about the performance. Paxton is barely in the film, but as his name flashed by in the end credits and Céline Dion’s trembling vocals murmured the early verses of “My Heart Will Go On,” I wept even more; the emotion of the film met the emotion of real life. In this type of situation, the rivers of tears are a help, or if not “help,” at least a way of dealing with the thought of the random cruelty of life. The song plays on.

When an actor’s death affects me so strongly, I don’t just think of him as a celebrity, reduced to an image on a screen. Actors are human beings – a radical revelation, I know – but ever since the age of movie-fan magazines in the 1920s and 30s, there has been a tendency for actors to be thought of as mythical, deified, existing on a separate plane from us commoners. It is impossible for me not to mourn the loss of Bill Paxton, an actor who so many people (whether they worked with him or met him for only a moment) agree was a “nice guy,” and who, in a just world, would still be here to play those strange and intriguing supporting roles that lie slightly outside the realm of glamorous stardom. When I watch “Training Day” each week, I remember what I wrote in my notes after trying the pilot episode (I often scribble stray observations during commercial breaks): “Bill Paxton narrates like he’s a world-weary private eye in a film noir. Or maybe his voice is the sound of an old pair of cowboy boots walking across hot sand. Either way, a protagonist who isn’t Brad Pitt, not bionic Tom Cruise – he’s a man who you could believe has arthritis.” This show, Titanic, and the rest of the marathon: they all form a part of my grieving process for an artist who I have only just begun to appreciate. Cause-and-effect in reverse, you might say.

La Belle Michèle

Michèle Morgan, who passed away yesterday at age 96, was one of the great stars of French cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. For some actresses (and their fans) it might have been enough just to be a beautiful presence onscreen, but Michèle was always much more than a pretty face. She had a remarkable ability to find the passionate depths of any character she was given, whether it was a beret-sporting gamine who casts her spell on an army deserter (Jean Gabin) in Marcel Carné’s proto-noir Port of Shadows (1938), a wide-eyed maid who falls in love with a valet (Jack Haley) in Tim Whelan’s musical comedy Higher and Higher (1943) or the kindhearted mistress of a butler (Ralph Richardson) accused of murdering his wife in Carol Reed’s drama/thriller The Fallen Idol (1948). Michèle knew when to play cool and assured and when to magnify the high-spirited, richly emotional aspects of a role; she owed some of her success to her exceptionally good looks, particularly her striking blue eyes, but the enduring truth of her appeal was in the way she could imbue the women she played with the intelligence and poise that only a genuinely gifted performer can possess.


Three weeks ago I watched one of Michèle’s classic French films, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (aka Stormy Waters) (1941), which is available via the Criterion Collection in the box set Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During the Occupation. In the film, Michèle plays a cynical young woman whose path crosses with that of an older sea captain (Jean Gabin) who rescues her from a ship stranded during a tempest. The two embark on an affair that ends, like all memorable French dramas must, in tragedy.





Michèle’s finest scene in Remorques is at the end of the film, when Jean Gabin leaves their hotel room to return home and reunite with his dying wife. Michèle hands Gabin’s first officer a starfish that she found on the beach during one of the couple’s clandestine meetings. It is a quiet, tender moment made bittersweet by the tears in the corners of her eyes even as she insists on smiling through her sorrow – she knows that the romance has ended and that she will never see her beloved again.

Earlier, in September, I watched one of the few American films Michèle made in the 1940s, Joan of Paris (1942), a World War II espionage drama from RKO Pictures in which she plays a penniless Frenchwoman who helps an RAF aviator (Paul Henreid) and his comrades on their mission to get back to England after being shot down over Paris. At the time I saw the film, I was so struck by two particular scenes that I took many screenshots to capture those images; I have gathered some of them here to further pay tribute to Michèle. I implore you to seek out Joan of Paris, which is available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. Although the screenplay has a number of flaws and the film focuses more on action than on character development, the performances by Michèle, Paul Henreid, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, a young Alan Ladd and John Abbott are well worth seeing.






In the second half of the film, Michèle goes to a church to pray for Paul Henreid and his fellow aviators as they attempt to carry out their perilous escape plan. I am certain that director Robert Stevenson deliberately sought to evoke the intense close-ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). There is a dazed, haunted look in Michèle’s face as she begs God to spare Henreid from the Nazi antagonists’ bloody wrath.








At the film’s end, Michèle and a compassionate local priest (Thomas Mitchell) come to terms with the grim consequences of her assistance to the Allied fliers. Michèle walks toward the camera, solemn and trembling yet certain that she has done the right thing. Cinematographer Russell Metty observes the shifting planes of Michèle’s face, the different reactions made visible depending on the angles of light and shadow. This is a performance which the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described in January 1942 as having “deep poignance and real nobility,” an evaluation which still rings true three-quarters of a century later.

Creeptober: Horror for Halloween Month (Evil Dead Edition)

For eleven-twelfths of the year, I abstain from horror movies. With few exceptions that I can remember – the only ones coming to mind being when I watched the Frank Langella version of Dracula (1979) late on a hot July night and watching a double bill of Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944) on an August night on TCM – I always wait until October for my horror-genre enjoyment.

2016 has been fun so far: Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Return of Doctor X (1939), The Climax (1944), The Strange Door (1951), House of Wax (1953), The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960), Incubus (1966), The Exorcist (1973) [which, for the record, I hated], The Sentinel (1977), The Changeling (1980), Venom (1981), The Others (2001) and The Conjuring (2013) have all now been checked off my list. But without a doubt the best decision I could have made this Halloween season was to watch Sam Raimi’s low-budget masterpiece, The Evil Dead (1981), and subsequently to watch the film’s two sequels and the follow-up TV show currently airing on the STARZ network, “Ash vs Evil Dead.”

Billed as “The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror,” The Evil Dead was filmed in 1979 for next to nothing (I think the budget was approximately $350,000), it was first shown in 1981 and it eventually became a cult classic upon its national theatrical release in 1983 and later (massive) popularity on home video. The film made an unlikely star out of Bruce Campbell, who is now an icon of horror/sci-fi/other weird genres, and Sam Raimi has had an interesting track record as a director, including the Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey Maguire (2002-2007) and the Cate Blanchett-starring supernatural thriller that I like quite a bit, The Gift (2000). I think I did the best type of preparation possible for The Evil Dead, which is to say I didn’t read anything about it. I didn’t want to spoil any aspect of the viewing experience. Perhaps it would have been good to know that the film has more gore than any film I have ever seen – enough to warrant an NC-17 rating, although technically the DVD is unrated – but in the end, I didn’t actually mind. When a film is as entertaining as The Evil Dead, extreme blood and guts get a pass.

(The only thing worse than listening to a book on tape: listening to the Book of the Dead on reel-to-reel audio tape.)

It’s easy to see why Bruce Campbell’s character, Ash (or Ashley J. Williams in full), has become such a beloved hero – although perhaps I should say antihero since he sometimes undermines his ability to save the world through sheer dumbness. In this first film, Ash has to kill his sister Cheryl, his girlfriend Linda, and two other friends when they become possessed by evil spirits (roused by passages spoken aloud from the Book of the Dead, aka the Necronomicon) during a weekend stay at a remote cabin. These unlucky friends’ reanimated bodies won’t stop until they take Ash down with them too. As the undead – or Deadites, as they are called in the franchise – stalk Ash through the various rooms in the cabin and in the basement underneath, director Sam Raimi displays maximum creativity as a horror filmmaker. Not bad for a 19-going-on-20-year-old making a feature-length flick in between semesters at Michigan State.

So then we come to Evil Dead II (1987). How do you make a sequel to The Evil Dead? By making a parody, of course! The fearsome cabin in the woods becomes a funhouse where Bruce Campbell – whose chin could kill if it so chose – turns the acting dial for Ash up to 11 and delivers a physical comedy performance worthy of cinema’s greatest clowns. Obviously the scenes where Ash’s hand is possessed, and therefore must be sawed off before it kills its owner, exhibit a ton of skillful stuntsmanship, including the impressive flip that Bruce Campbell does to launch himself headfirst onto the floor.

Evil Dead II also bestows upon us the gift of the iconic scene where Ash, now free of his right hand, first attaches his now-famous chainsaw appendage.

Raimi and Campbell further upped the stakes (ha!) with the third leg (ha ha!) of the trilogy, Army of Darkness (1992). In a madcap tribute to Ray Harryhausen, Ash must fight a legion of angry skeletons in the year 1300 (an evil vortex sent Ash back in time at the end of Evil Dead II). You can imagine how terrified people of that era would have been to see guns, but at least Ash gets to work in his sales pitch from the Michigan retail store where he works, S-Mart. In the second clip, you also witness some of Sam Raimi’s evident affection for the Three Stooges’ brand of humor.

Even though this was not originally supposed to be the ending of Army of Darkness, I love the last scenes in the film. Ridiculous, over-the-top, fun. Hail to the king, indeed.

The TV series “Ash vs Evil Dead” picks up exactly where any fan would expect: Ash, still working as a stockboy (or is it stockman?) in small-town Michigan and wasting away without purpose, must fight another wave of Deadites when he accidentally recites some of the Necronomicon’s demon-summoning text during a drunken rendezvous with a lady friend. Delightful pandemonium ensues.

Let’s end with some bits from late night talk shows and other online goodness. Backtracking to last year, I remember seeing this charmingly oddball interview with Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless on “The Late Show.” Campbell’s impression of Stephen Colbert, not because of the voice or even the look, but because he so totally nailed Colbert’s particular body language.

My favorite YouTube comment on this “Conan” interview clip from last month: “I’ve never heard the word ‘booby’ come from the mouth of a classier man. What a guy.”

Finally, we have Bruce Campbell and his “Ash vs Evil Dead” costar, Lucy Lawless (of “Xena: Warrior Princess” fame), reviewing scenes from some classic and not-so-classic horror movies. Lesson learned: some of the best film criticism can come from those who have firsthand knowledge of working in the genre. Here’s to more time spent with the most evil of the dead and the guys and gals who send them back to hell.

Vital American Material: The Film Criticism of Andre Sennwald


Cinema Journal (Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring 1971)) review by Howard Suber of the collection The New York Times Film Reviews, 1913-1968 (published in six volumes, 1970).

I am writing today about Andre David Sennwald, Jr. (born August 4, 1907; died January 12, 1936). He was the second person to hold the position of chief film critic (1935-1936) at the New York Times, the first being Mordaunt Hall (1924-1934) and the third being Frank S. Nugent (1936-1940). Although Sennwald wrote during one of the most important periods in film history – Pre-Code talkies (1931-1934), then the transition to the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code (1934-1936), including Becky Sharp as the first-ever three-strip-Technicolor feature – his name is a footnote in the New York Times’ history of film criticism. Sennwald is so well forgotten that he does not have an English-language Wikipedia page (he does have a German-language page (translated here), which makes me wonder if he came from a German family and a relative wrote it) and I have not been able to find any photographs of him online. He is a man of many mysteries.

There isn’t really any way for me to know Andre Sennwald outside of what he wrote for the New York Times, although I would like to particularly since he and I share the same birthday. He adored W.C. Fields and Greta Garbo; he had a definite disdain for John Boles; he often rolled his eyes at the popularity of Shirley Temple; he wasn’t always sure what to make of James Cagney’s cinematic choices, depending on which film he had to review (in the earliest Sennwald piece that I have found, dating to April 1931, the first sentence of his negative critique of The Public Enemy describes it as “just another gangster film at the Strand, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, and, like most, maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire”); after watching Captain Blood (1935), he saw the obvious potential for superstardom in “spirited and criminally good-looking” Errol Flynn; in perhaps my favorite bit of flattery, Sennwald wrote in a review of The Gilded Lily (1935) that “there is a young man named Fred MacMurray who can munch a peanut or take off his shoes like one of the boys” and that “Mr. MacMurray’s ability to seem completely natural without abandoning his charm ought to make him one of the most popular of the cinema’s glamour men within the next few months.”

Andre Sennwald’s career was all too brief. Here is some of the news coverage of his death in 1936; most articles are from Monday, January 12, the day after it happened.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1/13/36

The Pittsburgh Press, 1/13/36


Lewiston Daily Sun, 1/13/36

Motion Picture Daily, 1/13/1936


Columbia Daily Spectator, 1/16/36

Sennwald’s death is a perplexing one. Did he mean to commit suicide because of supposedly impending blindness, or was the gas leak/explosion a terrible accident? An article published in the Times Herald of Olean, New York on January 13 mentions that the explosion “was caused by escaping gas in the kitchen” and that “it was believed to have been set off by a spark from an electric refrigerator,” while the January 14 copy of Jefferson City, Missouri’s Daily Capital News states: “A medical examiner’s report indicated today that Andre David Sennwald, Jr., movie critic of the New York Times, died by his own hand. An explosion wracked Sennwald’s penthouse early yesterday. The top three floors of the apartment house were damaged and a broken water main sent water down elevator shafts, disputing service. The explosion was caused by escaping gas. The medical examiner found that Sennwald died from gas poisoning, showing he was dead before the explosion. He had suffered from an eye disease and was said to have feared for his sight.” Despite the M.E.’s conclusion, unless there was a suicide note that the family withheld or other information which the investigating police did not make available to the public – or which is simply not searchable through free Google fieldwork – it seems to me that it is impossible to know with 100% certainty the intention (or lack thereof) that led to the death of Sennwald, who had been considered “the brightest film critic” in New York City (according to The Montreal Gazette), at age twenty-eight.


Columbia Daily Spectator, 1/13/36

Andre David Sennwald is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, NY (according to Find a Grave). Occasionally his name resurfaces, although such acknowledgments are rare. In 2014, J. Hoberman wrote New York Times essay about classic Universal Studios horror films and he quoted Andre Sennwald’s musings on the role of violence in American film: “In the mad, confused days which preceded our entrance into the World War, the cinema was satiating the blood lust of noncombatant Americans with just such vicarious stimulants. Hollywood, always quick to reflect or stimulate a mass appetite, seems to be doing the same thing all over again.” More recently, New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick wrote a Tweet this past January to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Sennwald’s death. In memory of this sadly overlooked critic, here are a dozen of my favorite examples of Andre Sennwald’s New York Times film reviews:


Sons of the Desert (1933, dir. William A. Seiter) – reviewed January 12, 1934

“Let it be said at once that the new Laurel and Hardy enterprise has achieved feature length without benefit of the usual distressing formulae of padding and stretching. It is funny all the way through. The mournful and witless Mr. Laurel and the frustrated Mr. Hardy are just as unfitted for the grim realities as they have ever been. A Quixote and Panza in a nightmare world, where even the act of opening a door is filled with hideous perils, they fumble and stumble in their heartiest manner. At the Rialto spectators are checking their dignity with the doorman; an audience yesterday spluttered, howled and sighed in sweet surrender.”

The Old Fashioned Way (1934, dir. William Beaudine) – reviewed July 14, 1934

“To the lyric popping of vest buttons and the tortured noises of the laugh that begins deep down, the magnificent Mr. Fields has graciously placed himself on view at the Paramount, and honest guffaws are once more heard on Forty-third Street. The great man, the omnipotent oom of one of the screen’s most devoted cults, brings with him some new treasures, as well as a somewhat alarming collection of wheezes which, ten years ago in the vaudeville tank towns, must have seemed not long for this world. But somehow when Mr. Fields, in his necessary search for comic business, is forced to strike up a nodding acquaintance with vintage gags, they seem to become almost young again.”

Our Daily Bread (1934, dir. King Vidor) – reviewed October 3, 1934

“King Vidor, who gave us ‘The Crowd’ and ‘Hallelujah,’ has plunged his camera boldly into vital American materials in ‘Our Daily Bread,’ which opened at the Rialto last night. His new work, which he wrote, produced and financed himself, is a brilliant declaration of faith in the importance of the cinema as a social instrument. In richness of conception alone, Mr. Vidor’s attempt to dramatize the history of a subsistence farm for hungry and desperate men from the cities of America would deserve the attention and encouragement of intelligent film-goers. But ‘Our Daily Bread’ is much more than an idea. Standing in the first rank of American film directors, Mr. Vidor has brought the full power of a fine technique and imagination to his theme. ‘Our Daily Bread’ dips into profound and basic problems of our everyday life for its drama, and it emerges as a social document of amazing vitality and emotional impact.

“The effect of the photoplay is to bring the cinema squarely into the modern stream of socially-minded art and to lay bare for the inquisitive cameras the same fundamental dramatie [sic] themes which the young proletarian novelists like Albert Halper, Robert Cantwell and William Rollins are exploiting in the new American literature. For that reason alone it is impossible to over-estimate the significance of the new work.

“You may quarrel with the sentimental idealism of the ex-convict who voluntarily surrenders himself to the authorities so that his fellows may obtain the reward and save the crops from the drought. This theme, incidentally, was suggested to Mr. Vidor by Charlie Chaplin. You may quarrel with the theme of the blond-headed siren who almost wrecks the collectivist farm in her gratuitous efforts to lure the leader to destruction. This department applauds the Chaplinesque note and deplores the Theda Barish element. But ‘Our Daily Bread’ is too important as a canvas to be chastised for its debatable taste in minor details of Mr. Vidor’s brushwork.”

The Painted Veil (1934, dir. Richard Boleslawski) – reviewed December 7, 1934

“Pettish folk, out of an evident spirit of wish-fulfillment, are forever discovering that Greta Garbo has outlived her fame. They are knaves and blackguards and they should be pilloried in the middle of Times Square. She continues handsomely to be the world’s greatest cinema actress in the Oriental triangle drama, ‘The Painted Veil,’ which begins an engagement at the Capitol this morning. Tracing its ancestry to Somerset Maugham’s novel, which it resembles only in the casual surface qualities of the narrative, Miss Garbo’s new film is a conventional, hard-working passion-film which manages to be both expert in its manufacture and insincere in its emotions. Since it allows Miss Garbo to triumph once more over the emotional rubber-stamps that the studios arrange for her, we must not be ungenerous about ‘The Painted Veil,’ Richard Boleslawski has made a visual treat of it, and Herbert Marshall and George Brent head an excellent group of subsidiary players.

“It is the height of dishwater diplomacy to affect a temperate attitude toward this cool and lovely lady with the sad, white face and the throaty voice. She is the most miraculous blend of personality and sheer dramatic talent that the screen has ever known and her presence in ‘The Painted Veil’ immediately makes it one of the season’s cinema events. Watch her stalking about with long and nervous steps, her shoulders bent and her body awkward with grief, while she waits to be told if her husband will die from the coolie’s dagger thrust. It is as if all this had never been done before. Watch the veiled terror in her face as she sits at dinner with her husband, not knowing if he is aware of her infidelity; or her superb gallantry when she informs him of what it was that drove her into the arms of his friend; or her restlessness on the bamboo porch in Mei-Tan-Fu with the tinny phonograph, the heat and her conscience. She shrouds all this with dignity, making it precious and memorable.”

Becky Sharp (1935, dir. Rouben Mamoulian) – reviewed June 14, 1935 (reproduced here in its entirety since this particular movie is so important in film history)

“Science and art, the handmaidens of the cinema, have joined hands to endow the screen with a miraculous new element in ‘Becky Sharp,’ the first full-length photoplay produced in the three-component color process of Technicolor. Presented at the Radio City Music Hall yesterday for its first public showing, it was both incredibly disappointing and incredibly thrilling. Although its faults are too numerous to earn it distinction as a screen drama, it produces in the spectator all the excitement of standing upon a peak in Darien and glimpsing a strange, beautiful and unexpected new world. As an experiment, it is a momentous event, and it may be that in a few years it will be regarded as the equal in historical importance of the first crude and wretched talking pictures. Although it is dramatically tedious, it is a gallant and distinguished outpost in an almost uncharted domain, and it probably is the most significant event of the 1935 cinema.

“Certainly the photoplay, coloristically speaking, is the most successful that has ever reached the screen. Vastly improved over the gaudy two-color process of four and five years ago, it possesses an extraordinary variety of tints, ranging from placid and lovely grays to hues which are vibrant with warmth and richness. This is not the coloration of natural life, but a vividly pigmented dream world of the artistic imagination.

“Rouben Mamoulian and Robert Edmond Jones have employed the new process in a deliberately stylized form, so that ‘Becky Sharp’ becomes an animate procession of cunningly designed canvases. Some of the color combinations make excessive demands upon the eye. Many of them are as soothing as black and white. The most glaring technical fault, and it is a comparatively minor one, is the poor definition in the long shots, which convert faces into blurred masses. In close-ups where scarlet is the dominant motif, there is also a tendency to provoke an after-image when the scene shifts abruptly to a quieter color combination.

“The major problem, from the spectator’s point of view, is the necessity for accustoming the eye to this new screen element in much the same way that we were obliged to accustom the ear to the first talkies. The psychological problem is to reduce this new and spectacular element to a position, in relation to the film as a whole, where color will impinge no more violently upon the basic photographic image than sound does today. This is chiefly a question of time and usage. At the moment it is impossible to view ‘Becky Sharp’ without crowding the imagination so completely with color that the photoplay as a whole is almost meaningless. That is partly the fault of the production and partly the inevitable consequence of a phenomenon. We shall know more about the future of color when its sponsors employ it in a better screen play than ‘Becky Sharp.’

“The real secret of the film resides not in the general feeling of dissatisfaction which the spectator suffers when he leaves the Music Hall, but in the active excitement which he experiences during its scenes. It is important and even necessary to judge the work in terms of its best—not its worst or even its average. ‘Becky Sharp’ becomes prophetically significant, for example, in the magnificent color-dramatization of the British ball in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo.

“Here the Messrs, Mamoulian and Jones have accomplished the miracle of using color as a constructive dramatic device, of using it for such peculiarly original emotional effects that it would be almost impossible to visualize the same scene in conventional black and white. From the pastel serenity of the opening scenes at the ball, the color deepens into somber hues as the rumble of Napoleon’s cannon is heard in the ballroom. Thenceforward it mounts in excitement as pandemonium seizes the dancers, until at last the blues, greens and scarlets of the running officers have become an active contributing factor in the overwhelming climax of sound and photography.

“If this review seems completely out of focus, it is because the film is so much more significant as an experiment in the advanced use of color than as a straightforward dramatic entertainment. Based upon Langdon Mitchell’s old dramatization of ‘Vanity Fair,’ it is gravely defective. Ordinarily Mr. Mamoulian is a master of filmic mobility, but here his experimental preoccupation with color becomes an obstacle to his usual fluid style of screen narration. Thus a great deal of ‘Becky Sharp’ seems static and land-locked, an unvarying procession of long shots, medium shots and close-ups. It is endlessly talkative, as well, which is equally a departure from Mr. Mamoulian’s ordinary style.

“Perhaps it was inevitable that Thackeray’s classic tale of the ambitious Becky and her spangled career in English society would be reduced on the screen to a halting and episodic narrative. But the film is unconscionably jerky in its development and achieves only a minor success in capturing the spirit of the original. In many of the screened episodes, Thackeray’s satirical portraits come perilously close to burlesque, and they barge over the line in several places. Miriam Hopkins is an indifferently successful Becky, who shares some excellent scenes with many others in which she is strident and even nerve-racking. Frances Dee makes an effective Amelia, and photographs beautifully in addition. There are fine performances in the celebrated rôles by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Alison Skipworth, Nigel Bruce and Alan Mowbray.

“But one thing is certain about ‘Becky Sharp.’ Its best is so good that it becomes a prophecy of the future of color on the screen. It forced this column to the conclusion that color will become an integral motion picture element in the next few years. If Mr. Mamoulian and Pioneer Pictures can be persuaded to film a modern story for their next venture, striving to repress their use of color to the more sombre hues of our twentieth century civilization, ‘Becky Sharp’ will have fulfilled its great promise.”

No More Ladies (1935, dir. Edward H. Griffith) – reviewed June 22, 1935

“The kind of class which Eadie (who was a lady) used to spell with a capital K has been expensively buttered on the motion picture version of ‘No More Ladies,’ which opened at the Capitol Theatre yesterday. Joan Crawford has it, Robert Montgomery has it, the dialogue has it, Adrian’s gowns have it, and the opulent Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sets have it. The photoplay, despite its stage ancestry, is out of the same glamour factory as Miss Crawford’s ‘Forsaking All Others.’ If it is less furiously arch than that modern classic of sledgehammer whimsey [sic], it is also somewhat less successful as entertainment. Out of the labors of the brigade of writers who tinkered with the screen play, there remain a sprinkling of nifties which make for moments of hilarity in an expanse of tedium and fake sophistication.

“…Although Donald Ogden Stewart has contributed several really funny lines, the screen play is chiefly notable for its surface shimmer, the hollowness of its wit and the insincerity of its emotions. The sophistication of ‘No More Ladies’ is the desperate pretense of the small girl who smears her mouth with lipstick and puts on sister’s evening gown when the family is away. It ought to make a very respectable profit.”

Curly Top (1935, dir. Irving Cummings) – reviewed August 2, 1935

“Shirley Temple’s new picture is dedicated to the simple things of life, with special reference to the power of the hello-neighbor smile in conquering the ills of humanity. So shameless is it in its optimism, so grimly determined to be cheerful, that it ought to cause an epidemic of axe murders and grandmother beatings in this sober vicinity. Shirley herself, far from showing signs of deterioration or overwork in ‘Curly Top,’ actually hints in her work at an increased maturity of technique. Her remarkable sense of timing has never been revealed more plainly than in the song and dance scenes in her new film, and she plays her straightforward dramatic scenes with the assurance and precision of a veteran actress. With all this, she has lost none of her native freshness and charm.”

Mad Love (1935, dir. Karl Freund) – reviewed August 5, 1935

“Peter Lorre, the brilliant Hungarian actor of ‘M,’ arranges another of his terrifying studies in morbid psychology in his first American photoplay at the Roxy. At heart ‘Mad Love’ is not much more than a super-Karloff melodrama, an interesting but pretty trivial adventure in Grand Guignol horror. With any of our conventional maniacs in the role of the deranged surgeon, the photoplay would frequently be dancing on the edge of burlesque. But Mr. Lorre, with his gift for supplementing a remarkable physical appearance with his acute perception of the mechanics of insanity, cuts deeply into the darkness of the morbid brain. It is an affirmation of his talent that he always holds his audience to a strict and terrible belief in his madness. He is one of the few actors in the world, for example, who can scream: ‘I have conquered science; why can’t I conquer love?’—and not seem just a trifle silly.

“Perhaps you have not yet made the acquaintance of Mr. Lorre: squat, moon-faced, with gross lips, serrated teeth and enormous round eyes which seem to hang out on his cheeks like eggs when he is gripped in his characteristic mood of wistful frustration. As if these striking natural endowments were not enough, his head has been shaved as clean as Mr. Micawber’s for the occasion, and his skull becomes an additional omen of evil in the morose shadows which Karl Freund has evoked for the photo-play.

“…‘Mad Love’ is frequently excellent when Mr. Lorre is being permitted to illuminate the dark and twisted recesses of Dr. Gogol’s brain. In the theatre des horreurs, which he attends night after night, you see him in his box watching his lady tortured upon the rack, veiling his eyes in an emotion which is both pain and sadistic joy as he listens to her screams. There is an extremely effective scene in which the doctor, going quite definitely mad, hears the voice of his subconscious lashing him for his failure to conquer the woman. In the climactic scene, when the doctor loses all contact with reality and immerses himself in his Pygmalion-Galatea identity, his maniacal laughter raises the hair on your scalp and freezes the imagination.

“Even if it is not quite what we might have looked for in Mr. Lorre’s first American picture, ‘Mad Love’ is an entertaining essay in the macabre, and it may be a useful vehicle for introducing him to his new American film public. As those fortunate filmgoers who saw him in ‘M’ do not need to be told, he is among the great screen actors. He is capably assisted here by Colin Clive as the injured pianist, May Beatty as the doctor’s drunken housekeeper, Keye Luke as his operating room assistant and Edward Brophy as the condemned murderer. Ted Healy, a highly amusing comedian, has gotten into the wrong picture.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dirs. William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt) – reviewed October 10, 1935

“Hollywood pursues the shapes and shadows of the unfettered imagination with courage, skill and heavy artillery in Max Reinhardt’s film version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ which the Warner Brothers presented at the Hollywood Theatre last evening. Many of the elusive, dancing conceits of Shakespeare’s lyric fantasy remain at large, though, and seem to hover about the screen hooting derisively at the cinema’s determined bloodhounds. But Mr. Reinhardt has isolated some of the winged fancies and the photoplay caparisons them in rich and lovely stuffs. If this is no masterpiece, it is a brave, beautiful and interesting effort to subdue the most difficult of Shakespeare’s works, and it has magical moments when it comes all alive with what you feel when you read the play.

“For the work is rich in aspiration and the sum of its faults is dwarfed against the sheer bulk of the enterprise. It has its fun and its haunting beauty. The play has been adapted with intelligence and affection. Except for a laggard quality in the ballet movements, it moves with a mettlesome step. William Dieterle, one of the most skillful directors in Hollywood, has transferred Mr. Reinhardt’s visions to the screen all complete. Erich Wolfgang Korngold has arranged the Mendelssohn music in a magnificent score, which weaves a rhapsodic spell about the spectator and transports him to the sightless realm of Avon’s elves and fairies.

“But the plain and distressing truth is that the screen, in the proud act of releasing the play from the shackles imposed on it by the proscenium arch, has the embarrassing miracle to perform of creating visual images which will catch the phantoms that lurk behind the words. The Nijinska ballet, for example, evokes not the fairy attendants of Oberon and Titania, but pretty girls in white gauze and sturdy gentlemen with wings strapped to their shoulders.

“The goblins are dwarfs in make-believe masks and the moonbeams on which the fairies dance are clever mechanical tricks in which the man-made magic is never quite submerged in the illusion it is striving to create. If you look too eagerly at Puck as he soars into space on a stick, you will discover the wire on which he is being hoisted.

“It is an illuminating fact that the photoplay achieves perfection in the clowns, those pragmatic louts who have no belief in the revels of the fairy people in the enchanted wood between dusk and dawn. Joe E. Brown as Flute the Bellows-mender gives the best performance in the show. It is a privilege to roar with laughter when he is rehearsing for the rude masque or playing the timid Thisbe to James Cagney’s Pyramus. Hugh Herbert and Frank McHugh are uproarious as his fellow tradesmen.

“…Mickey Rooney’s remarkable performance as Puck is one of the major delights of the work. As the merry wanderer of the night, he is a mischievous and joyous sprite, a snub-nosed elf who laughs with shrill delight as the foolish mortals blunder through Oberon’s fairy domain. In the other important rôles the film is uneven in performance and suggests flaws in Mr. Reinhardt’s reading of the play. As Bottom, the lack-wit weaver whom Puck maliciously endows with an ass’s head, James Cagney is too dynamic an actor to play the torpid and obstinate dullard. While he is excellent in the scenes in the wood, in the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ masque he belabors the slapstick of his part beyond endurance.

“…It is difficult to measure ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ critically because the infant cinema has had no time to build a Shakespearean tradition. Whatever its flaws, it is a work of high ambitions and unflagging interest, and it provides a stimulating evening in the cinema. It is a credit to Warner Brothers and to the motion picture industry.”

Peter Ibbetson (1935, dir. Henry Hathaway) – reviewed November 8, 1935

“The striking thing about the new screen version of ‘Peter Ibbetson’ at the Radio City Music Hall lies in the identity of its director, Henry Hathaway. Known almost exclusively for his ‘Lives of a Bengal Lancer,’ Mr. Hathaway bridges the spiritual gulfs between that rousing super-Western and the fragile dream world of duMaurier’s sentimental classic with astonishing success. With his directness and his hearty masculine qualities, he skillfully escapes all the lush pitfalls of the plot and gives it a tenderness that is always gallant instead of merely soft. The photoplay, though it scarcely is a dramatic thunderbolt, possesses a luminous beauty and a sensitive charm that make it attractive and moving. Under Mr. Hathaway’s management Miss Ann Harding, who has been losing prestige lately, gives her finest performance, while Gary Cooper fits into the picture with unexpected success.

“Hathaway’s special triumph is in the dream sequences, which could have degenerated so easily into the double-exposure ghostliness of the recent ‘Return of Peter Grimm.’ Carefully avoiding the temptation to bathe the screen in misty photography and heavily remind his audiences that this is a spirit world, he abandons conventional screen devices and boldly insists on the reality of the dreams. This is a shrewd modern touch and it goes for to make duMaurier’s celebrated love story dramatically effective. The astral sphere on which the lovers moved through a lifetime of happiness, while their bodies remained shackled to the earth, thus becomes to us what it was to them, more vividly actual than the daytime world that kept them apart.”

Your Uncle Dudley (1935, dirs. Eugene Forde and James Tinling) – reviewed December 12, 1935

“The Center Theatre offers a meager and unassuming little comedy of small-town life as its pre-Christmas contribution to the film sector. We cinema reviewers, when films as unobtrusively dull as ‘Your Uncle Dudley’ happen along, make a minor virtue of anemia by applying such kindly adjectives as amiable to them. Although ‘Your Uncle Dudley’ is unpretentious, it is also aggressively commonplace. It seems to have been manufactured for the tail end of double bills and it barely possesses the laughs for a competent two-reeler. Consequently it scarcely impresses this column as an amiable motion picture. In the title rôle Edward Everett Horton fidgets familiarly as a rural Caspar Milquetoast who finally rebels against the tyranny of his sister. The chances are that, like Cole Porter’s first sniff of cocaine, it will bore you terrifically, too.”

The Ghost Goes West (1935, dir. René Clair) – reviewed January 11, 1936 (the day before Andre Sennwald’s death)

“This review seems to require a preamble. Faced with an event of such imposing interest as René Clair’s first English-speaking film, it is a grave temptation to go in for comparisons. That is distinctly the wrong approach to ‘The Ghost Goes West,’ which M. Clair made in England for Alexander Korda. The film is not pure Clair, or even characteristic Clair, because for the first time he is working in a strange language and from a script that is not his own. Robert Sherwood, who wrote the screen play, is as much a part of the film as the director himself. Consequently, the new film at the Rivoli Theatre reveals little stylistic relation to the precious handful of French films which bear his name. Nor does it possess, except in isolated scenes and details, any such distinct form as might identify it immediately with the cinema’s finest master of comedy.

“This is an unhappily pompous way to introduce such a gay, urbane and brilliantly funny film as ‘The Ghost Goes West.’ The Messrs. Sherwood and Clair are toying a gracefully long, loud laugh at the expense of American millionaire art lovers and European tradition. Their ghost, very solidly played by Robert Donat, is of the Scotch persuasion, he is a handsome devil, and even after 200 years he has an eye for the ladies. His adventures with the castle that is dismantled and transported to America are always merry and sometimes sharply satirical.

“…Mr. Donat, who revealed his brilliant talent for romantic comedy in ‘The Thirty-nine Steps,’ plays his two rôles with fine zest and even manages a Scottish burr with fair success. Eugene Pallette is uproariously solemn as the millionaire and Jean Parker plays the daughter engagingly. It would be criminal not to single out Morten [sic] Selten for special mention. As the proud old head of the Glourie clan he makes such an indelible impression during his brief appearance on this earth that his ghostly dialogues with his son acquire an added hilarity. ‘The Ghost Goes West’ is the first important film of the new year, and a joyous one. It is the cream of an ebullient jest.”

Anton Yelchin, 1989-2016


I don’t really know what to write about Anton Yelchin. I’ve been thinking about him for the last four hours. Yesterday he was alive, and today he is not. I can’t believe I’m writing about him in the past tense.

He was usually the best part of any cast he was in. He broke my heart at the end of the “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” episode that he guest-starred on back in 2006; he gave the best performance in The Beaver, which I saw only three weeks ago; he was one of the saving graces of the Fright Night reboot; he was such a funny, adorable sweetheart in Only Lovers Left Alive, my favorite character in the movie. His voice had that wonderful way of cracking slightly; it could make even the silliest, most clichéd dialogue sound better.

I was so close to seeing Green Room when it was in theaters in April, but for some reason I kept putting it off until it was too late. I really regret that. And only last weekend, when I last went to the movies, I saw the trailer for Star Trek Beyond and I – a lifelong avoider of all things Star Trek – thought something along the lines of “I might actually, finally catch up and see these new movies; Anton Yelchin is in them.”

One of the reasons why I have pursued the career of film critic/pop culture blogger is that I love watching actors grow and change. Even when I don’t love the movies I write about, I look for ways to appreciate the performers’ abilities. Anton Yelchin was one of those young actors whose work I always enjoyed. I looked forward to seeing what he would do next. I was waiting for the moment when he would advance from a star of indie films and a supporting player in blockbusters to a major Hollywood leading man. It was, I was certain, just a matter of time. He had so many decades ahead of him.

I write about movies and actors because I care about them. When an actor dies as tragically and young as Anton Yelchin has, it hurts. It physically hurts. I felt sick when reading the obituaries earlier. For this devastating loss, I feel for the family and friends, the acting community, for the fans all around the world.

2016, you have caused us so much heartache and the year isn’t even halfway over. When will enough be enough?

Nothing Compares 2 Him (A Second Retrospective)

Whom would I be kidding if I said I had cared about anyone’s music but Prince’s for the last week and a half? I have found myself thinking constantly about how Prince intersected with pop culture and how the world around him inspired him. So, after my last post, which counted twelve of his finest moments, I return with a dozen more.

1. “The Beautiful Ones” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). When I went with a friend to see Purple Rain at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square last Tuesday, “The Beautiful Ones” stood out as one of the highlights of the film. To be clear, even though I know the Purple Rain soundtrack inside out, I had never actually seen the entire film, or if I had, it was many years ago and probably in a television-friendly cut on MTV or VH1. So it was a revelation when I saw the way that Purple Rain uses this particular song, which has quite possibly the best vocal on the album. As rising star “The Kid,” Prince pleads with Apollonia (same name for both actress and character) to choose between his love and the ill-gotten gains of stardom as a pop tart in the employ of antagonist Morris Day (again, same actor/character name). In an essay written for Rolling Stone on April 22, Tim Grierson wrote that “[Prince’s] finest movie moment jettisons acting all together and delves purely into the art form he mastered. Watch Prince’s performance of ‘The Beautiful Ones’ in Purple Rain, which — in a mere five minutes — embodies everything he did so incredibly: emotion, passion, sensuality, poignancy, combustible sex appeal, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him star power.” True, true, true.

2. “Darling Nikki” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Oh, “Darling Nikki.” Yes, this is the song that spurred Tipper Gore to create the “Filthy Fifteen” list of songs that she felt were destroying vulnerable young ears and should be kept at a distance from the youth of America. Prince is therefore single-handedly responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory label on CDs, which were the result of the war waged by Gore. As if it could have been done any other way, the song’s inclusion in Purple Rain is a memorable one; bathed in brilliantly red stage lighting, “The Kid” taunts Apollonia (still torn between having her pop-star career and being with him), which is quite a feat considering her own big number in the film, the ridiculously cheesy “Sex Shooter.” Next to that, “Darling Nikki,” with its slow-burning buildup and almost ominous blares of keyboard from Revolution member Lisa Coleman, is one of the seven wonders of the world. The link between Prince’s music and sexuality is best described by Dodai Stewart in her essay “On Prince, Blackness, and Sexuality”: “Prince leaves us, as part of his legacy, a wholly unique case study for a black American male pop star. He didn’t have the put-upon polish or narrow repertoire of the smooth, seductive, quiet storm R&B guys. He wasn’t all braggadocio and brawn like the rappers. He had little in common with the slutty, sloppy, noisy rock gods. His sexuality funneled his feelings—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—into a quest for physical connection, one twin’s craving to find, touch, and melt into his other half, which would then, finally, finally, make him whole. Two bodies coming together so that the minds and souls could follow. His sexuality was not monolithic; he was insistent and reticent, fragile and strong, curious, exploratory, experimental, horny. Not the typical American sex symbol. Not tall, not brawny. But deeply interested in the topography of pleasure: Discovering its limits, giving it, taking his own, finding someone else’s. ‘Sexuality is all you’ll ever need,’ he sang in 1981’s ‘Sexuality.’ ‘Sexuality, let your body be free.'”

More succinctly, I’m also reminded of what music critic Robert Christgau wrote about Prince in 1980: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

3. “I Would Die 4 U” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Following the film’s apex, Prince’s performance of the title power ballad, there is joyous liberation in the exuberance of “I Would Die 4 U.” The audience (both in the film and the viewers watching on the other side of the screen) knows that this is going to be something different because after all the Sturm und Drang of the previous ten or so minutes, “The Kid” returns to the stage with a grin, totally aware that he now has complete possession of the adoring crowd. What follows is the stuff that Internet dreams are made of, given that people have made GIFs out of every single second, from the gliding movements of Prince’s high-heeled boots to this slick move to the slow-motion shuffle-slide across the floor. Maybe even more than by those specific images, you could sum up Prince’s magnetism with the first lines of the song: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” Whatever their reasons for loving Prince, everyone at the Times Square screening (myself included) was cheering, clapping and stomping along to the beat.

4. Prince (with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) accepting the Oscar for “Best Original Song Score” for Purple Rain (Academy Awards, 1985). It’s easy to forget that Purple Rain is an Oscar-winning movie since the “Song Score” category has not been awarded to any films since Prince won the prize. (You can read a bit more about that here.) I’m glad that Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s collaborators in his band The Revolution, were also on hand to accept the gold since they contributed so much to the impact of the film/album’s nine songs. One also must wonder how many boys and girls were watching the telecast and were mesmerized by sight of the Purple One draped in a glitter-covered caftan, looking kind of like a sparkly nun.

5. “When Doves Cry” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988). I can’t be certain where I would have seen this clip when I was younger since it couldn’t possibly have been on YouTube, but I have a definite memory of seeing it at some point during either high school or college because in those days I had a habit of passing time in any math or science class by scrawling stuff about music all over my notebook margins, and whenever it was that I saw this live video of “When Doves Cry,” I remember writing something the next day along the lines of “1988: Prince as a cover model from a Harlequin romance about pirates.” Who wouldn’t want that?

6. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (music video; studio version appears on the album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990) and Prince featuring Rosie Gaines, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (from the concert film Rave Un2 the Year 2000, 1999). “Nothing Compares 2 U” has to be the most famous Prince song that he didn’t make famous himself. Originally penned by him in 1985 for one of his side projects, The Family, the cover by Sinéad O’Connor in 1990 went #1 around the world, was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (#162) and has a music video which is considered iconic. O’Connor’s version influenced by the memories of her mother’s death in a car accident in 1985 is the definitive rendition but both expressions of the song are beautiful.

7. “Muppets Tonight” (guest host gig (as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”), 1997). Let it never be said that Prince didn’t have a sense of humor. Bless him, in the “Hoo-Haw” farmer segments, there are a couple of moments when he sounds like Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie.

8. “Purple Rain” (live at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, 2007). Fittingly it rained during this epic presentation, which was seen by 140 million TV viewers. Watch and be amazed.

9. “Creep” (live at Coachella, 2008). Anyone who has ever heard Radiohead’s “Creep,” the 1993 single that launched them into the stratosphere of alt-rock deification, must recognize that it’s a song that takes on new life when covered by other artists. The song means one thing when performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but it’s totally different when you hear it done by Macy Gray, an African-American woman who was in her mid-40s when she included it in her album Covered in 2012. Prince’s interpretation is also interesting; he changes up the lyrics but makes the guitar sound even more unsettling than I’ve heard previously. I like to think that Radiohead’s recent decision to remove themselves entirely from their social media websites is a strange little tribute to Prince, whose well-documented battles with the Internet are the stuff of legend.

10. “New Girl” episode “Prince” (2014). Did Prince share the same pastimes as us regular, boring people who watch sitcoms? Evidently, since he was apparently a fan of the FOX comedy “New Girl” and agreed to do a guest spot two years ago. He acts as a spiritual advisor to Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who needs some help in the crucial step of being able to say “I love you” to new boyfriend Nick (Jake Johnson). Pancakes, ping pong and butterflies are all involved in Prince’s magical process. And one of the absolute best parts? Jess’s makeover is set to the energetic sound of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” (from his 1980 album Dirty Mind).

11. Interview with Arsenio Hall and fan questions (2014). I hadn’t seen this interview before last week. Arsenio gets some good answers out of Prince, and the fan Q&A part has some pretty nice moments.

12. “Baltimore” (feat. Eryn Allen Kane) (lyrics video; studio version appears on the album Hit n Run Phase Two, 2015). In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1990, Prince commented on an unreleased work, The Black Album (1987), by saying that “I was very angry a lot of the time back then and that was reflected in that album. I suddenly realized that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we left behind. I didn’t want that angry, bitter thing to be the last thing. I learned from that album, but I don’t want to go back.” Since Hit n Run Phase Two is the last Prince album released in his lifetime, I think it means even more that he wrote and recorded a deeply political song concerned with Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement. For a long time – most of his career, I guess – Prince avoided covering overtly political topics in his songs, but he was obviously so moved by this cause that he had to speak out. If he were still here, he would undoubtedly hold more concerts like the “Rally 4 Peace” in Baltimore last May.

A last word: D’Angelo featuring Princess, “Sometimes It Snows in April” (performed live on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2016). I don’t usually cry over celebrity deaths. It’s simply a fact of my emotional makeup; I can weep at the drop of a hat while watching a movie, but when a singer or actor dies, the reality/finality of it is usually numbing more than anything else. Days passed after Prince’s death, and I listened to his music obsessively, but I didn’t cry. Not until this past Wednesday morning, that is. I was on an Amtrak train to Boston, exhausted because I hadn’t slept at all that night so that I would be ready to leave my house at 4:45 and board the 6:55 train. As I sat in my window seat I watched the video of D’Angelo performing on “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday night, which I had missed because I had been busy getting ready for my trip. Backed by Princess, a Prince cover duo made up of Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, D’Angelo delivers a moving performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April,” the last song in Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and also the last track on the Prince and the Revolution album Parade (1986). Obviously the song has taken on a new, tragic meaning given Prince’s passing on April 21 and you can hear the heartbreak in D’Angelo’s voice as he gives the song his all. It had me quietly shedding more than a few tears in the bright morning sunlight.

I was crying not just because of how sad I was, but also because I was so angry. I was confronted with this overwhelming feeling that Prince’s death wasn’t right, that it should not have happened in a compassionate universe. He should still be writing and recording songs with powerful messages, songs that could open people’s eyes to the injustices of the world (but maybe also continue to make the slow jams that everyone loves). I used to read his Twitter page, marveling at the fact that he actually wanted to have a presence on social media, and the fact that he referred to his Instagram account as “Princestagram,” a name he would write out in capital letters and often with several exclamation points. (The man certainly popularized what we now think of as text-speak, “U” and “B” and “2,” etc.) I realize I’ve hit upon what distresses me the most; for so long Prince was this enigmatic, larger-than-life figure, but in recent years he had become more knowable, connecting with his fans in a way he never had before. Now we won’t get the chance to know him any better, or at least not in his own voice. We might get glimpses of the man in archival material released from his fabled Paisley Park vaults, but it won’t be the same as his existing in real time and telling us himself. We had a conversation going – one that still felt like it was only just beginning – and now it has ended. That’s what hurts the most.

Friday Music Focus: 4/22/16


Today I pay homage to the music/pop culture icon known as Prince. He had the look, the voice, the soul, the rock, the funk, the pop perfection, the guitar chops and so much more that combine to make a person into a legend. Given Prince’s famous aversion to websites like YouTube, it’s anyone’s guess how long the videos I have been lucky enough to find will remain online before being removed by his estate and/or record execs so for now please listen, watch and enjoy.

1. “Controversy” (music video; studio version appears on the album Controversy, 1981). I’m pretty sure that my aunt had a copy of Prince’s Controversy album on CD, so that’s where I first heard the title track, years before iTunes or music-sharing websites. It might be considered Prince’s ultimate anthem: who is he? Do we know? How many things can this one artist represent? How well do sex and religion – the two most potentially taboo subjects on the planet – mix? And why should any prospective “controversies” matter (or they might still matter, but not in a career-destroying way) as long as the music has meaning(s)? The man had an appeal that transcended every label or barrier imaginable.

Regarding Prince’s religious conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness, a cause for which he was known to go door to door in Minneapolis, one fan wrote (and could not reiterate enough) in a forum online: “It’s Prince! I’d invite Prince in my home to discuss the Dewey decimal system. It’s Prince!”

2. “Little Red Corvette” (music video; studio version appears on the album 1999, 1982). Like “Controversy,” I first heard “Little Red Corvette” on CD, as part of the compilation The Very Best of Prince (2001) if I recall correctly. Put simply: it’s a flawless pop song. In the paragraph that accompanies its ranking as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (at #109), the tune is described as “an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.”

3. “When Doves Cry” (music video; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). This is definitely the first Prince song that I have any memory of hearing. Even without the amazing guitar solo that ends the album version of the song, the music video is as exciting as it was for me when I was a kid. True to the name of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution, there seemed something so rebellious and thrilling in the imagery that opens the clip: Prince in the bathtub, then crawling across the floor. Did men in the pop world do such things? (As I imagine ten-year-old me asking myself.) Wasn’t it always the women – Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher – who were tasked with providing sensuality for the viewers? Was this the moment, the little click in my brain, when I understood the power of male sexuality in popular music?

4. “Kiss” (music video; studio version appears on the album Parade, 1986). I think I actually knew the 1988 cover of “Kiss” by Tom Jones/Art of Noise before I heard Prince’s recording, but once I heard the original song, it instantaneously became the only version that mattered. If anyone else had made this music video, the dance moves and outfits (or lack thereof) probably would have looked completely ridiculous, but Prince could do it.

5. “The Cross” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988; studio version appears on the album Sign o’ the Times, 1987). A guitar-and-sitar sermon intended to sear your skin off with sheer rock-and-roll strength. Great to see Sheila E. on the drums as well.

6. “Electric Chair” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 1989; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Batman, 1989). A weekend update: SNL’s Prince tribute show on April 23 featured this funky gem.

7. “Summertime” (live during a soundcheck before a concert in Japan, 1990). During a rehearsal for a show in Osaka, Prince improvises some impressive piano licks on this cover of the Gershwin jazz classic.

8. “Purple Rain” (live on TV; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). In a way my recollection of “Purple Rain” is of not hearing it rather than hearing it; on the night of the 2004 Grammys, when I was 11 years old, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house with my parents – probably a normal dinner get-together – and when I got there I was met by the two girls who lived next door, raving about some performance that had opened the Grammy show. It was the biggest thing possible, Prince and Beyoncé duetting on “Purple Rain” and other songs in a medley, and I was too late to have experienced it. When you listen to the lyrics, it makes sense: “Purple Rain” as a theme to missing out, wanting something you almost had but have now lost, even though you have hope that one day you’ll finally be able to attain it.

9. “Gett Off” (live at the MTV Video Music Awards, 1991; studio version appears on the album Diamonds and Pearls, 1991). I think my favorite assessment of this VMAs performance comes from a YouTube comment: “Everyone thought 2004 Janet Jackson and Justine Timberlake’s nipplegate halftime show at Superbowl XXIII was raunchy, huh…think again. This was a Sodom and Gomorra Whorehouse on stage and in 1991.” Orgy aside, “Gett Off” might not be as great a song as another definitive Prince track from the early 90s, “Sexy MF” – the music video for which I got a kick out of seeing on VH1 Classic at 6:00 pm on Saturday, when any susceptible child (or adult!) might see it – but as far as MTV showmanship goes, he deserved all the points for creative costuming.

10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004). At the same ceremony in which he was himself inducted into the hallowed music organization, Prince performed with a who’s who of rock musicians in tribute to inductee George Harrison, who had passed away in 2001. Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison (George’s son) lead the pack, but when Prince’s electric guitar solo kicks in at the 3:27 mark, it’s like the theater has only just come alive. Has there ever been a cooler sight or sound? And while we’re at it, where on Earth did that magical guitar go at the end after it was tossed up to the heavens?

11. “Black Sweat” (music video; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). I remember when this video came out ten years ago and it was a pretty excellent feeling, knowing that Prince was so effortlessly modern. Although I couldn’t be sure that everyone who had already loved Prince for years would necessarily dig the song (perhaps contingent upon the genres you prefer – it’s not a magnet for the rock crowd), I figured it would undoubtedly draw younger generations. If ever the term dope jam could be applied, this would be the place.

12. “Fury” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 2006; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). This, ladies and gentlemen, is the zenith.

Every weeknight from Monday to Thursday, Comedy Central broadcasts reruns of “Saturday Night Live,” and some time ago – a few weeks ago, I would say – the channel showed the episode from February 2006 which featured Steve Martin as the host and Prince as the musical guest. Prince’s rendition of “Fury” became an immediate classic for me when I first saw it ten years ago, so when Comedy Central showed it I knew I had to see it again and I knew the performance would be 100% as superb as I remembered it. Wailing with a voice full of passion, shredding the guitar like Jimi Hendrix reborn. When Prince bounces off the stage at the end, the reverberations of his guitar still echoing through the space, you know that you’ve just witnessed something special. It’s hard to process the fact that he’s gone when the fire of that show still burns so bright.


With the digital universe continuously crying out for our exponentially divided attention, we are living in hyperbolic times. So it’s good to be reminded what The Best Thing Ever truly looks, sounds, shimmies, shakes and shrieks like.

That would be Prince.

– Chris Richards, Washington Post (2015)