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Event Review: Festival of Books

The 22nd annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a unique combination of book sales, signings and promotional events. I’ve attended for years and, still, I enjoy it while acknowledging its deficiencies. My top complaint is the same as always: volunteers, event staff, venue staff and security are poorly equipped and trained to direct the over 150,000 people who come to the University of Southern California campus. Event maps are lacking. One volunteer in a festival information booth gave me the wrong directions to the Salvatori Computer Science Center, not to be confused with an arts and letters building donated by a Salvatori with that name emblazoned on it. Getting around the festival, important if you favor lectures and panel discussions as I do, gets worse every year (read my thoughts on last year’s festival here).

Once at the destination, which could be anywhere around USC’s wonderful campus near downtown Los Angeles, you’re often afforded outstanding opportunities to listen, learn, ponder, explore and examine the world of books and ideas. I spent much of the two-day weekend event roaming around booths, visiting small university presses, independent booksellers, university writing programs, USC’s many schools’ showcases and booths for various authors, theaters, publications, schools and products, from Atheists United, Titanium sponsor Acura dealers of Southern California and the Ayn Rand Institute to author Zoe Summer and YaYa’s Creole Products. Add music—the Trojans’ marching band is always a favorite—cooking and kids’ areas, and C-Span’s Booknotes interviews and scads of other contests, prizes and free samples, from books and prints to power bars and bags (which come in handy with California’s plastic bag ban, which amounts to a tax) and the book fair truly is a festival. Subtract the presence of book publishers that dominated early festivals, however, and there are fewer and fewer books, especially new, major books and authors.

I had previously attended a conversation with author Glenn Frankel at an event at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park several weeks ago. His book about High Noon and what he and many others in Hollywood refer to as the blacklist (Hollywood’s highly touted 1950s’ blackballing of presumed Communists or Soviet sympathizers, not the list of unmade scripts) makes Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and worked for the Washington Post, an attractive guest speaker. So, I already knew that Frankel, who also taught journalism at Stanford and the University of Texas, knows his subject well. He’d told the Autry audience, for instance, that High Noon was shot in 32 days on a low budget, that screenwriter Carl Foreman was called to testify to a congressional committee about his membership in the Communist Party and that star Gary Cooper was the son of British immigrants, that he may have been impacted by childhood visits to Montana’s state house, where he saw a painting of Lewis and Clark, and that he was not very political.

When I saw that Frankel was on a book festival panel on classic Hollywood, I decided to attend. Knowing that, at the Autry, he had dropped the context that the United States was under threat of attack by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), something that people who talk about the Hollywood blacklist usually do, and that we know that the Soviets funded subversive efforts to undermine the U.S. government, I wanted to hear a detailed analysis of classic Hollywood, including the blacklist, through panel discussion.

Instead, the panel was the opposite. Moderated by USC writing instructor, Newsday political cartoonist and author M.G. Lord, who wrote a book on Elizabeth Taylor titled The Accidental Feminist, the panel was a barrage of uncorroborated claims and arbitrary assertions about the blacklist which turned into a political rant against Trump and conservatives with hardly any discussion of classic Hollywood. Author Jon Lewis, a movie professor at Oregon State University, declared that Trump’s election means democracy is dead in America (seriously). Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times film critic, whom apparently everyone calls Kenny, barely spoke about classic film, though he did mention being raised as an Orthodox Jew. Frankel, who is both extremely knowledgeable and fundamentally mistaken in his book’s assertion that Ayn Rand is to blame for what he sees as the injustice of a Hollywood blacklist, gave the most substantial classic Hollywood analysis. Others went for laughs and digs at Trump or the blacklist.

To her credit, Karen Maness, a scenic artist and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop and painting instructor for the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance and scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, gave very interesting facts and insights about classic movies’ backdrops.

The classic movies discussion was disappointing but a panel on writing short stories was worse, despite efforts by PEN Center USA literary programmer, author and moderator Libby Flores. Given the team’s credentials, I was astonished that no one really talked about writing short stories. Channelle Benz, who earned her MFA at Syracuse University, has published short stories in The American Reader and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. Author Dana Johnson is an English professor at USC and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Brooklyn writer Rebecca Schiff graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program and her stories have appeared in The Guardian. Deb Olin Unferth, who writes in Austin, Texas, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Tin House. So I was looking forward to a detailed examination of writing short stories. The panel started late and veered into the writers’ rambling thoughts on why they are fascinated by “the color of blood” and admissions and confessions of personal tastes and idiosyncrasies. When I asked if they have an explicit theme in mind when they write a story, only Schiff answered and she didn’t say much. No one else spoke.

Unferth was the most entertaining short stories panelist, using humor to lighten the dense discussion, which did not include mention of a single writing habit. Unferth, who told the audience about a story she wrote in which a shooter contemplates whether to gun down a child at the top of a hill, was asked about the most memorable reader response to her writing. She made the audience laugh when she admitted that a blogger once posted—and apparently kept posting—about how he hated one of her stories, which he wrote was a downer that kept dragging him down. Imagine that.

When Flores asked everyone to name the first story to make an impression, no one could think of a single story to name. At some point, Schiff did manage to credit Kurt Vonnegut with the advice to “make your character want something—even if it’s just a glass of water.”

Titles among their material might have been a cautionary clue that they aren’t terribly interested in breaking down the writing, let alone editing and publishing, process. Benz is the author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead. Johnson’s newest book is titled In the Not Quite Dark: Stories. Schiff’s latest book is called The Bed Moved.

Easily the most stimulating panel came late in the festival on Sunday. Whereas the short story writers gave the impression that writing is mysterious, magical and indecipherable, the writers on the “From Page to Screen” panel stressed the opposite idea.

Panelists included Brian McGreevy, author and screenwriter (and co-creator of AMC’s The Son with Pierce Brosnan), who was a James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His latest novel is The Lights. Also on board: novelist Tod Goldberg, who wrote novels based on USA Network’s Burn Notice and co-authored the Hammett Prize finalist Gangsterland, for which he’s writing a sequel, Gangster Nation, scheduled for publication this fall; Los Angeles writer Pamela Ribon who recently co-wrote Disney’s Moana and former Dark Shadows actress Lara Parker, author of three novels based on NBC’s cult soap opera, who attended Vassar College, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a BA in philosophy and received her MFA in creative writing from LA’s Antioch University. The moderator, USC writing instructor Richard Rayner, who’s written nine books, including an LA crime history, A Bright and Guilty Place, and an interesting article on Rudyard Kipling, liked to talk more than he liked to let the panelists talk.

When they did, the page-to-screen writers were hilariously insightful and incisive, generously sharing their insecurities, showing their battle scars and being utterly candid in every detail about their writing. Contrary to the painfully pretentious short stories panel, these writers were quite self-aware and purposeful in trying to help the audience grasp the hard work and wrenching business of writing. They fed off of Goldberg’s delightful banter with Ribon, which was at once politically incorrect and perfectly suited to the occasion, delivering with good humor the necessary tips, tools and knowledge to manage Hollywood’s often anti-conceptual handling—more like belittling—of the writer. Goldberg wisely explained that he knows his limits (he didn’t put it this way) by focusing on prose writing. McGreevy had said something similar.

Everything Tod Goldberg said, and he is enormously successful, and, not coincidentally, decent, kind and gracious in person, tracks to not letting the pain of pursuing a livelihood in writing go too deep down into your soul. In his own introverted way, McGreevy, too, let the audience know how to let off steam and cope with adversity in the potentially ruinous page to screen process, alluding to horror stories while delivering a blistering breakdown of the term “showrunner” as a total lie. McGreevy, who explicitly embraced writing’s solitude and said that he really doesn’t like spending a lot of time with people, explained that he studied the creative process from a primarily different orientation—that of the perspective of those titans of the technology industry. He said he read many of their books on being productive and gained real value. He also encouraged writers to take breaks often to give detachment and distance to the material (my writing class students may recognize this particular writing lesson).

Parker shot down the moderator’s attempt to credit her acting with any meaningful tie-in to her writing, crediting her own reading of great works of horror literature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to more recent novels and, finally, her decision to mimic the structure and approach of Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn). She derided the box office bomb movie version starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins (“Tim Burton is not interested in story”, she said) and, having played a villainess, the witch, she pointed out that the franchise Dark Shadows is a supernatural thriller rooted in serious, universal themes of life and death through gothic romanticism. Asked by Rayner after she griped about having to deliver bad lines as an actress to name the worst line, Parker fingered The Six Million Dollar Man on ABC, in which she played Col. Steve Austin’s love interest who told him at the end of the weekly episode that: “There will always be a candle buring for you in the window, Steve.” To which Mr. Goldberg deadpanned, a moment after audience laughter subsided: “Was this during the Civil War?”

All of which only made this writer want to read their books.

Spring’s Festivals 2017

The 8th annual Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival (which I previewed here) ended this month with a party at the Hollywood Boulevard ballroom where the first Oscars ceremony was held (Wings won the Academy’s first Best Picture award). I’ve covered, moderated and hosted film festivals before. TCM’s festival is my favorite.

As I wrote this year, TCM’s Classic Film Festival is focused on the movies and with genuine respect for those who love them, really love them, for the artistry of motion pictures. Not that other festivals don’t have that aspect but TCM’s is driven by this passion and thrives on it. So, read my condensed report on the festival at LA Screenwriter, where you can also read my account of a rare, personal conversation with classic movies scholar and film historian Leonard Maltin. Maltin, whom I interviewed in 2015 about his Classic Movie Guide for TCM, introduced several pictures at screenings this year. Read my full, final roundup of TCM’s Classic Film Festival at The New Romanticist, where you can also read my review of Alfred Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which I saw on David O. Selznick’s nitrate print screening—adoringly introduced by Martin Scorsese.

I’ve also added three new reviews of classic comedies, which I saw during the festival at 35mm screenings in Sid Grauman’s recently renovated The Egyptian movie palace: Jack Conway’s scathing, sexual movie Red-Headed Woman (1932) and a pair of delightfully smart and savvy early pictures by German expatriate Ernst Lubitsch, the silent film So This is Paris (1926) and the Jeanette MacDonald-Maurice Chevalier musical One Hour With You (1932). Each of the three movies, part of TCM’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” festival theme this year, center upon male infidelity.

America’s largest literary festival, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, happens this weekend at University of Southern California (USC). With more than 500 authors, artists and intellectuals, the Trojans’ campus will be filled with various writers including Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Joyce Carol Oates and Chuck Palahniuk. Also in the lineup for various events, including book signings, conversations, panel discussions, lectures and interviews, are John Scalzi, Scott Simon, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Bryan Cranston, Roxane Gay, Dave Grohl, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Tippi Hedren, Marlon James, Clinton Kelly, Rep. John Lewis, Cheech Marin and Danica McKellar. The book fest takes over USC with cooking, musical concerts, poetry and children’s readings, and sponsor Center Theatre Group will provide a performance of songs from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is presented in association with USC, with main sponsorship from the Southern California Acura Dealers. Attendance to the festival is free at USC, which is adjacent to Exposition Park. Hundreds of exhibitors offer books and merchandise for sale, giveaways and activities. If you’re interested in more information, visit the Festival of Books official website. Read my thoughts on last year’s book fest here.

Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Dark, moody and subversively modern in the worst ways, yet undeniably alluring thanks to the magnetism of movie stars Jean Harlow and Charles Boyer and Adrian’s stunning gowns, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 79-minute Red-Headed Woman offers nonstop sexual suspense.

Played as comedy to smuggle its explicit sexual themes into the vibrant picture, which I saw in 35mm at the Egyptian during TCM’s Classic Film Festival, Red-Headed Woman is really more of a tragic, cautionary tale with touches of melodrama. Based upon Katharine Brush’s scandalous novel, adapted by one of H.L. Mencken’s favorite female writers (another was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living he hailed), Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman was a hit.

Like Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck—who wanted the lead in Red-Headed Woman (so did Greta Garbo, according to film scholar Cari Beauchamp, who introduced the picture), this story of a secretary using sex to gain power, money and status is astounding for its plain depiction of a woman whose self-esteem is based on objectifying herself, which is to say denying herself any authentic, reality-based estimate of her own value.

“If the barn door’s open,” Harlow’s harlot deadpans to Una Merkel’s best friend and roommate (one wonders if she’s also Harlow’s lesbian lover on the side), “what’s to keep a girl from goin’ in?” Slither on into the home of her boss businessman’s home she does, knowing that his wife (Leila Hyams) is out of town, seducing him with a conniving sense of delirious mission. As Lillian (“Lil” aka “Red”), Jean Harlow (Wife Vs. Secretary, Red Dust, Design for Living, Libeled Lady) is simply perfect. It’s not her look, as such, or beauty, that taunts boss man Bill (handsome Chester Morris) and drives him wild for sex. As with most sex-starved golddiggers, it’s her constant availability, daring desire and her radically open want for sex. He’s putty in her presence and, it’s hinted, they usually end up going at it on the floor, but every seduction is fully earned. Harlow, who purrs “Beeeeww” when she wants him to want her, pins the part in every scene.

Directed by Jack Conway with panache, Red-Headed Woman has powerful, propellant energy, and part of that emanates from the great performances but part of it also comes from the drama. A marriage is at stake and this sexual power-luster is hellbent to ruin it. Whether she succeeds, and what constitutes success, is the movie’s underestimated central core. Setting every man from a “coal king” to a French chauffeur (Charles Boyer in an impressive turn) who may be her lowdown counterpart, in her crosshairs, the red-haired woman willing to prostitute herself that Bill’s father (Lewis Stone as the movie’s moral center) calls a “snake in the grass” gets exactly what she wants, it’s suggested, and probably, ultimately what she deserves.

“Do it again,” she tells a man after he slaps her to make her stop making him want to grab her and kiss her, adding with a well-timed punch of her own: “I like it.” Red-Headed Woman is an interesting portrayal of a woman of the flesh—neither endorsement nor repudiation, but stark and honest—who lets men have her so she can really tear them down. In this sense, it’s dark and cynical, an attitude that’s become prevalent since it was made. This in itself is testament to the movie’s culturally prophetic ending.

Movie Review: So This is Paris (1926)

With his silent movie So This is Paris (1926), director Ernst Lubitsch, who had by then left Germany, directed Mary Pickford and become Warner Bros.’ first star director, delivers a true comedy of errors. The tale of two married couples, which I saw in 80 minutes at The Egyptian in 35mm during TCM’s 8th annual Classic Film Festival, with piano accompaniment and an introduction by film scholar Cari Beauchamp, is a loopy homage to the Parisian take on “love and liberty”.

It’s hilariously indulgent.

Monte Blue stars as a married man tempted to cheat on his romance novel-reading wife (Patsy Ruth Miller) with a loose woman and former flame (Lilyan Tashman) who lives across the street. But the wife plays a role in her own husband’s temptation as she’s the one who orders her husband out of the home after sexually fantasizing about the half-naked man (expressive Andre Beranger, stealing every scene) whose body catches her attention from across the way and So This is Paris carries on and on from there, singling no one out too much and letting everyone have a moment to flirt, play and be wronged. In fact, the whole movie, with a wildly eye-catching ball sequence complete with dancing the Charleston, is really about the human desire to play and let loose.

This hit for Warner Bros., which shows the early Lubitsch touch of lightness seeded with serious ideas, keeps pace and never lets up. The wife’s too lonely and wants romance to be real. The husband is stifled and misses his former flame’s sense of raucous abandon. The other couple, too, is a bit too playful for their own good and, with a traffic cop lurking, they’re bound to pay the consequences. Look for Myrna Loy as a housemaid, watch Beranger in every scene and pay particular attention to the Artist’s Ball scenes with the lively dancing. Most of all, enjoy the early American period for Ernst Lubitsch, before his other motion picture study of married life, One Hour With You, which also screened at the film festival. So this is a glimpse of the naughty, savvy, sexually-themed good humor with which he would make some of the most enduring and enriching movies ever made.

Movie Review: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.