Movie Analysis: Wings (1927)

The spirit of youth propels Wings (1927), Oscar’s first Best Picture, directed by William Wellman. Youth as idealism permeates the epic silent movie from the start, in eloquently worded titles, a beautiful cast and awe-inspiring action. I finally caught part of Wings several years ago on TCM. I was spellbound by the seriousness, gripping drama and earnest performances. I saw it again last night at a courthouse in Pasadena (see my afternotes). Hearing the audience gasp, sniffle, laugh, weep and go silent drove its impact home. Wings is both box office smash and magnificent motion picture.

The first thing to notice about this 90 year-old film is the leads in fresh and expressive faces that capture the pre-World War 1 state of the nation. It was a man’s world, with women recently made eligible to vote, though their emerging status as liberated equals plays to the picture’s strength. Still, pre-feminist scenes of men are remarkable. Wings is a window to what once was true, in easy glances and sustained, naturally confident enthusiasm for life—as against today’s submission to waiting for permission to pass and impressing or catering to others, especially in deference to women—and for life’s thrills, from fast cars, efficacy and love of country to the prospect of piloting an airplane. These were, in Wings‘ titles and words, “paths of glory”.

Buy the Blu-Ray

Poetic writing dramatizes two early 20th century American men as they go to war in Europe. They bid goodbye to fathers and mothers and dogs in extended scenes  teasing what it means to go to war, a sense we’ve lost as a nation, which may explain why we’ve been engaged in the longest and most unsuccessful war in U.S. history.

Wings shows what’s worth fighting for.

Man is depicted in youth—in three lives, one woman (Clara Bow, Mantrap) and two men (Charles Rogers, Varsity, and Richard Arlen, 1934’s The Virginian)—battle and love. So Wings‘ foremost quality is reverence for the life of a single man. You notice how it was once considered natural, even decent, to admire man.

You also notice that the wealthy are depicted as human, too, which is a rare quality in movies. One of the leading males, Arlen’s character, David, who becomes known to the one who loves him most as Dave, has a chiseled, aristocratic beauty; he sits with an air of benevolent ease when he’s with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), his girlfriend, on a swing. He barely blinks when another man, Jack (Rogers), arrives to steal Sylvia away. David’s wealth lies in his grace and confidence, a refined kind of lust for life that gains higher meaning in his military training as an aviator in war. Director Wellman (A Star is Born, Night Nurse, Beau Geste, The High and the Mighty, The Ox-Bow Incident), an ace pilot during World War 1 himself, lavishes David with unending lightness and nonchalance.

David leaves his worldwise mother, whose face carries a lifetime of knowledge, and wheelchair-bound father, whose eyes foresee what may come, and goes to train for his first flight. As he does, carefree Jack, who is only interested in working on his car, wooing the uptown Sylvia and taking part in the war against the Heines, as the enemy Germans are known, is oblivious to the affections of Mary (Bow) from around the bend. Bow’s characterization of Mary is really exceptional, embodying the best of a newly liberated woman, both undaunted and feminine yet somehow an atypical female. Soon, the soldiers see that Mary measures up in terms of fearlessness.

Jack and David bond amid pilot training, sealing the connection over a short but powerful encounter with a lanky pilot named White (Gary Cooper in his first credited role). They crawl, steer, hop, dodge, fire weapons and endure bad news before facing any Germans, portrayed here as marching with pageantry and flying with superiority. Then comes the first dogfight. The planes go down. Daredevil aerial photography shows the dueling biplanes skirting and chasing like wiggling tadpoles in the sky. When bombs start falling and bullets start piercing, vengeance, heartbreak and, thanks to a Dutchman who’s proud to be American, humor abound. Ribbons of black smoke trail in the air, planes pull suddenly up and up and up. Bubbles rise in a Paris nightclub. Always, action on screen suggests the whir of an airplane as Wings comes to a shocking climax in the skies above a French countryside. In daring camera work, Wellman depicts death as a searing and tender farewell—in unforgettable intimacy—as an intelligent and watchful woman and her child bear witness to the private horror and valor of war.

This leaves undone only the final accounting, etched by the retracing of a shooting star, and the vow to focus on the moment “from now on”. Wings, too long in battle scenes and showing that war makes life harder to cleanse, heal and sort through, depicts the sacred, and residual, oath to retain one’s innocence after almost everything is lost. Wings is not a pacifist movie. There is glory for those who fight to fly and fly to defend. But there is the hollow feeling, which men now rightly call trauma, in having loved and lost while soaring toward the stars. The soulful Wings is moviemaking at its most personal, powerful and best.

At the Pasadena courthouse screening hosted by Judge Alex Kozinski, the director’s son, William Wellman, Jr., Randy Haberkamp, the motion picture academy’s director of preservation, and Andrea Kalas, who is Paramount Pictures’ head of archives, spoke with the audience before and after the movie. One of the reasons I like attending Judge Kozinski’s “favorite flicks” (besides the pizza, prizes and guests) is that he, too, takes movies seriously, thinks for himself and brings people together based on a shared interest in examining film in rational discourse.

Last night’s event was no exception, with a discussion of Wings after the movie—before the Blu-Ray edition’s restoration came on, he spoke with his trademark humor about pre-Hays Code scenes of lesbians, naked breasts and what he referred to as the “man kiss”—about the Paramount movie’s $1.2 million budget, which was a lot of money in 1927. Artillery, tanks, troops, trucks and explosives were brought in from Fort Sam Houston to recreate World War 1. Wellman, whose son said he thinks his father was chiefly moved to make Wings by his wartime experiences as a pilot, specifically the loss of most of his friends and comrades in battle, used real bombs in the pictures of bombs being dropped on the town in France, which was actually a set built in San Antonio, Texas. When asked why his father was shunned in Hollywood, Wellman, Jr. said that he thought his dad was probably “insolent” and added that he was also probably less insolent “if they left him alone.” He pointed out that his father had lived through a real life equivalent like the picture’s Gary Cooper story arc. Wings is tremendously influential, from Star Wars to Top Gun, according to Wellman who said that the 80s’ film’s director, the late Tony Scott, once told Wellman that he’d watched Wings “many times” in preparation for making Top Gun. The silent film’s live accompaniment by musician Michael Mortilla was outstanding.

Wings was originally released with sequences presented in Magnascope, a lens which enlarged the 35mm image to an expanded screen.

Product Review: Verismo V by Starbucks

Competing with Mr. Coffee, Keurig and other home coffee machines, Starbucks launched its Verismo (pronounced vurr-izmo like ‘gizmo’ preceded by the ‘ver’ as ‘vurr’) a few years ago. Read my positive review here. This fall, the food, beverage and lifestyle company, whose innovative CEO Howard Schultz stepped down this week, introduced a new version of the machine.

Verismo V, as the new name goes, is improved.


Starbucks’ Verismo V

Better yet from the consumer’s perspective, they keep a similar price range ($129-$179), though it’s currently on sale for $99, which comes with a variety pack or your choice of a box of a dozen coffee pods (a limited line compared to Keurig, which also carries Starbucks coffees, including milk-based, espresso and brewed beverages). It’s available with a milk frother, but I already own one of those.

First, the negatives, and there are a couple. The new detachable water tank, unlike the original machine’s tank, drips upon detachment, so, when you refill it with water, expect leakage on the way back to the machine (I haven’t figured out if it’s possible to stop that yet). I’m filling it without removing the container. Also, and it’s not that big of a problem, Verismo V is larger and takes up more space.

Product design enhancements outweigh the negatives, however, and make up for inconvenience. For example, the water tank, previously located in the back of the machine, goes on the side. It’s measurably larger, too, so a couple drinking a cup or two in the morning won’t have to refill the tank as often and can probably go a few days without refilling. It’s more accessible than before, too, with a simple lid, which easily fits into place. The other version’s water container was tucked into the back of the machine, which was a minor hassle.

The cup/drip tray is also removable, only it’s made of sturdier materials—especially the black metal cup holder, which is separable—and now it’s made to magnetically lock into one of two places to accommodate different cup sizes (and it’s easy to detach the parts completely to make room for a travel mug or tall glass). Rather than an indented spot for the cup as in the previous version, the new Verismo coffeemaker curves the opposite way (outwardly, not inwardly), which takes getting used to. The lever feels thicker, there are more buttons allowing more brewing choices—but not too many—on top and Verismo V is observably quieter when brewing coffee. Beverages (you can use the machine as a hot water dispenser for tea and hot chocolate, of course) are as hot as or hotter than before.

Other improvements include the ability to stop any brewing with the touch of any button and an ability—this is new—to program up to four custom dispensing settings, which Verismo V retains, so two people can have their own separate preferences pre-programmed like car seat positions. In the short time I’ve been using Verismo V, a used pod didn’t drop into the detachable container just once, so that’s still a factor, but at least the space for spent pods is larger. There’s still a small discharge of water after the rinse cycle but splatter has been reduced, so the protruding brew spout is more precise.

Verismo V by Starbucks

Verismo V by Starbucks

After set-up, here’s how Verismo works: fill the water container, power up the machine and place a cup on the tray. Wait for go signal (steady not blinking lights), pull the black metal lever down in one swift motion without a pod inserted, run a short rinse, empty the dispensed water and repeat with a cup after inserting a brewed, espresso and/or latte pod this time. Note that, unless you’re using the programmed settings, you’ll have to manually press any button to stop the brewing process or else the brewing does not stop and the cup will overfill. Verismo V still lasts a few minutes. Verismo V is a bit faster and commands are more responsive.

Starbucks offers fewer pod choices than Keurig’s line of K-cups, but limited edition blends, such as Christmas, Anniversary and others, are usually available in Verismo pods through Starbucks’ Target and in-grocery-store operations, online and Starbucks retail stores. Buying at Starbucks’ website in higher volume saves money, as pods come in boxes of 12 at about a dollar a pod (they’re not reusable).

Verismo V is for people who want to drink premium coffee at home without making a mess or spending more time, effort and energy than old-fashioned grinding, pressing and brewing. The coffeemaker comes with a good manual, which features set-up, programming, troubleshooting and cleaning and maintenance instructions, and the machine still automatically powers down after five minutes of idle time. For good, fast, convenient premium coffee at home, Verismo V remains an excellent option.

Go here to learn more about (or register your) Verismo V

Review: Starbucks App (2014)

Product Review: Verismo by Starbucks (2014)

Commentary: Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign

Starbucks Story for a Monday

Strictly Occidental

While doing research for assignments related to a college in Los Angeles, I wanted to know the origin of the term ‘occidental’. I knew from my Oxford English Dictionary that the word means that which relates to the countries of the West.

So I asked Paul Anthony Jones, author of etymological guides and The Accidental Dictionary in the United Kingdom and creator of the language website Haggard Hawks. Kindly, he answered by e-mail, starting with a comparison of the words oriental and occidental, which he wrote has to do with the sun: “[E]tymologically orient comes from the Latin for ‘rise’ or ‘begin’, occident from the Latin for ‘set’ (or ‘fall down’). It’s the association between the location of rising and setting sun that permanently attached the words to the east and west…That gives the words some interesting and quite unexpected cousins. Orient is related to abort and origin, and probably even orchestra somewhere along the line. Occident, in the sense of a falling or setting, is related to incidents and coincidences, accidents, and deciduous trees, as well as all the words that end –cide, like patricide, fungicide and homicide.”

This word, occidental, is also the name of a small, private college in northeastern Los Angeles.

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Alan Bliss memorializes mass murder victims of 9/11. Photo courtesy of JSBProductions

Occidental College is where an attack on a U.S. flag memorial was waged in three waves on this year’s 15th anniversary of the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on the United States. Alan Bliss, the sophomore pictured here who coordinated the besieged free speech exercise, tells me that he’s granting Occidental College the benefit of the doubt in protecting campus free speech despite the evidence to the contrary. The young Texan spoke with me in an exclusive interview on campus last fall. Read the story of his simple free speech exercise, its assault and destruction and the college’s appeasing response in my article here.

Occidental College is located in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, where a wine lounge recently hosted a pair of Occidental professors for an enjoyable lesson on the Greek god Dionysus (read the article here), in which they discussed Plato, Aristotle, sparagmos, Alexander the Great, and why Dionysus is best regarded as more complex than the god of wine. The club’s lounge is owned by an Occidental graduate who chooses to host art exhibits, readings and lectures and other exercises of free speech at his Colorado Wine Company, located on Colorado Boulevard, a few miles from the hillside college.

As I ponder the word occidental as emanating from the setting sun and meaning that which pertains to the West, I must note that the college which sustained, and arguably minimizes, a siege against the freedom of speech, is where Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice-presidential nominee, Ben Affleck and director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) once studied. That this credible institution of higher education now claims (as a college spokesman told me for this article) that the school “doesn’t have the resources” to protect a student’s exercise of free speech—and, instead, seeks to coddle and appease its attackers—underscores the precarious state of the First Amendment.

Today, the 45th president vowed to strip citizenship of or imprison anyone exercising the right to free expression by burning a flag. More than before, the absolute right to express oneself, whether by burning or planting a flag, is crucial to the future of the West.

Related Links

Occidental Professors Lecture on Ancient Greece by Scott Holleran

Occidental College Responds to 9/11 Assault on Freedom of Speech by Scott Holleran

Movie Review: Allied

There’s a gigantic moral lapse in Allied, written by the talented Steven Knight (Amazing Grace, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Locke) and directed by the masterful Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, The Walk). Explaining what it is gives away the whole plot, which I don’t want to do because this lush, glamorous romantic movie is too gorgeous and marvelous to dismiss. Mr. Zemeckis is an ambitious filmmaker with a keen sense of story and picture, though he does not always match philosophy to the scale, scope and sensibility of his grandest visions. His Cast Away, which I think is excellent, Contact, Forrest Gump and other movies come to mind.

cvmhk-exeaevanpAdd Allied to the list of his movies that are impaired from the start and don’t achieve the greatness of the ingenious Back to the Future pictures and last year’s magnificent cinematic elegy to the World Trade Center (1973-2001), The Walk. Allied comes very close and should be seen. Know in advance that a major problem cuts its power. See if you can figure it out as you watch.

I was held throughout the two-hour movie—which is an old-fashioned movie movie—until the end credits. Allied, which is about the shared values that bind, begins with a long, slow and neatly choreographed glide into enemy territory as the north African desert sun hovers on the horizon. Brad Pitt’s Max drops on the dunes of French Morocco. He’s in Casablanca by nightfall, meeting the hummingbird-coded Frenchwoman, Marianne (Marion Cotillard, Macbeth, Midnight in Paris). Both Cotillard and Pitt (Moneyball, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 12 Years a Slave, World War Z) shine in demanding roles, the type of parts that aren’t written anymore because they’re layered and glamorous and intended for movie stars that don’t totally exist.

The leading man and woman rise to the challenge. Stunning costumes, lacquered hair and lustrous photography by Don Burgess (Eight Below) serve to enhance the sensual air and infuse this Forties war drama with suspicion, romance and prolonged tension and suspense. Max and Marianne meet in an Allied undercover operation against the National Socialist Germans. They ride, dance, cavort, smoke cigarettes—in the best use of cigarettes since Now Voyager—kiss on moonlit African rooftops and take target practice together, too, all toward the goal of eradicating Nazis. Marianne and Max have moments alone, too, in long takes with deadly and intriguing implications. Both are trained professionals. As such, they remain mysterious, her in smooth talk and him in cold glances. To the distant sound of Moslem prayers and ghostly presence of a Nazi wife behind a curtain, watching them is irresistible.

Allied is a movie star movie, to be sure, and it exists to keep the audience watching this deadly male-female dance as both are imperiled. And, with 60-40 odds against pulling off the Casablanca mission, it’s natural that they fall in love. Or do they? Allied doesn’t let on and instead lets the viewer make the connection (if it’s there to be made) after an insatiable sex scene in a swirling sandstorm.

Do they or don’t they and will they or won’t they take secondary status to Allied‘s basic theme, beginning with that incredible sandstorm, that the world at war rages, explodes and crashes around Max and Marianne. As the action shifts to London and, periodically, France, this theme plays out in childbirth and at a party, with certain angles, shadows and light casting the two at the center of a world spiraling out of control. To entice and add to the puzzle in rising tension, Knight and Zemeckis include friendly and unfriendly witnesses and observers to their ongoing ordeal, from officers, a secretary and lesbians to the beautiful baby who changes everything if babies change anything.

The sensuous and tense affair draws to a memorable conclusion as raindrops, tracer fire and bombs fall and there’s a picnic at what feels like the end of the world.

Allied grants the grand, romantic wish fulfillment of us against the world as it bumps, tests and teases with its lacquered, polished glamour in the face of war, which it does not gloss over. But this involving war mystery does skimp the moral estimate, or activates moral evasion, oversimplifying itself. A narrative device and epilogue help but do not escape the need for moral accounting in an otherwise elegantly, beautifully rendered love story.

Remember Ron Glass

The cast of the gritty, Greenwich Village police comedy, Barney Miller (1975-1982), was anchored by Hal Linden in the lead. He played the 12th precinct’s rational police captain, who was practical, balanced and optimistic. The show’s uniquely dry, humorous pathos stemmed from shuttling between cynicism and idealism, almost always with a dash of the ridiculous. A multicultural cast avoided tokenism in the writing, which twists stereotypes every which way with cop and criminal characters that are old, Puerto Rican, black, female, Polish, gay, etc. The most intellectual character was a police detective who’s a writer named Harris.


Ron Glass (seated, far left) as Det. Harris on ‘Barney Miller’

Detective Harris was played by Ron Glass, who died last week. Glass played Harris with perfection for all eight seasons. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the show, which isn’t easy to find in syndication, and longer since I watched with my dad as a kid while it aired on ABC. I remember Detective Harris as clever and discriminating in spending his wit and intelligence on his work in the precinct; Harris did his job and did it well and was often called upon for his writing skills. What was distinctive, besides his being black in an era in which most black TV characters were poor, uneducated or criminal, is that Harris was both intellectual and debonair; he was handsome and was always the best dressed without being a dandy.

Det. Harris was also the only one with a steady, long-term career goal outside of law enforcement. He was usually relaxed, driven and disciplined. Harris always held himself a bit removed from his co-workers. He was proud, even a bit arrogant, yet affable and he never sought to be just one of the guys. Harris had higher aims. As I recall, the sophisticated detective was also the least prone to suffering, guilt and self-pity. Harris was an egoistic, happy policeman.

I can’t think of too many writer characters in Seventies television, let alone writers portrayed as positive and efficacious, as against fundamentally flawed and neurotic, and in mostly male work environments. I noticed this as a boy and, because I knew I wanted to be a writer, I found myself looking to Harris as a character every week, watching how he held and handled himself, checked himself, disciplined himself, withdrew or spoke up and worked within the precinct as a means to an end. That Harris, who eventually wrote and published a book, happened to be black was less integral to his identity than that he wanted to write. I noticed this, too. I think that’s thanks to Ron Glass, who took biting lines and deadpan looks, gave the character depth—not merely sass—and created an indelible cop-writer.

Last week, a decrepit dictator died who should be remembered for mass enslavement, misery and death and, as a warning, for glorifying thuggishness in TV, media and culture. TV also lost an amicable and talented entertainer, Florence Henderson, who played a cheerful housewife and mother for five seasons on another ABC comedy. Seeing the glorified thug on TV taught me early in life that something was terribly wrong with the world. Watching an idealized parent on TV gave me some guidance in the form of an often artificial and silly situation. I gained the most value from watching an actor playing an intellectual policeman who chooses to become a writer. For eight seasons on Barney Miller, Ron Glass made projecting a goal into the future seem possible and enjoyable. He did it with a sense of hard, grueling work as a rare and rewarding achievement. For this reason, I think it’s Ron Glass, the least likely of these three to be known, grieved and remembered, whose work will have—and ought to have—the greatest impact in the future.