'Ace in the Hole'

One of Billy Wilder's greatest movies -- and one of his rare flops -- is on home video at last. "Ace in the Hole" is a tough, cynical noir tale about the news business. It stars Kirk Douglas as a success-at-any-price newspaperman.

The film was a box-office failure when first released in 1951 and has never been available on home video. A Criterion two-disk set in a beautiful DVD transfer was issued earlier this month.

Go buy or rent this and watch it. Yes, it's good. Yes, you'll love it.

We'll gather back here in a couple of days to discuss.


'Wonder Boys:' Making choices

Hannah Green: Grady, you know how in class you're always telling us that writers make choices?
Grady Tripp: Yeah.

Hannah Green: And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's ... it's at times ... it's ... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And ... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices.

"Wonder Boys" (2000) is a movie about failing to make choices and, finally, growing up and making them. It's a funny, nuanced comedy, directed by Curtis Hanson of "L.A. Confidential" fame, with one of Michael Douglas' best performances ever. I watched it again last night and fell in love with it all over.

Based on Michael Chabon's novel, it's the story of a writer, Grady Tripp (played by Douglas), who is stuck writing his second novel. His first was a critical success and he's been working for seven years on his second. It's not that he's blocked (he doesn't believe in being blocked). It's that he can't stop. When he sits down to write, he rolls a blank sheet of paper into his typewriter and types a page number: 261. A pause, then he adds another 1 to make it 2611. As more than one person in the film notes, that's a lot of book.

Grady hasn't made any choices and now he's facing too many: his girlfriend (the chancellor of the university where he teaches, played by Frances McDormand) has announced she's pregnant (and she's also married to the head of the English department), his wife has left him and wants a divorce, his editor (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town and wants his book, and a prized student (James Leer, played by Tobey Maguire) wants his guidance (and can't seem to tell where life ends and his writing begins). And there's a matter of the chancellor's husband's dog, which Leer has shot when it attacked Tripp.

"Wonder Boys" is subtly funny and knowing of its subject: writers talking about, bragging about, complaining about and, occasionally, actually doing some writing. When Leer is carried out of a lecture, stoned and on the edge of vomiting, he narrates the whole event out loud ("They were going to the restroom. But would they make it in time?"). The university's WordFest event is a stinging send-up of pretentious literary confabs (Rip Torn stars as a wildly successful author who announces, at the start of his WordFest speech: "I ... am a writer.").

Michael Douglas gives what I think is the best performance of his career. He's unexpectedly funny and sad, shuffling around in a pink, chenile bathrobe, limping from a dog bite and taking the occasional hit off a joint. His life is a mess and, unlike a novel, there are no easy choices, no simple path to the final page. When his girlfriend asks what he wants to do about the baby, he hesitates. "I can't wait for you," she says. "I'm going to have to make this decision on my own."

Steve Kloves adapted Chabon's novel. He crafted a script that is funny and oddly moving. Tripp narrates the story, a device that is frowned on in modern films, but here it works, giving the film a writerly quality that is pretty much perfect. Such as this, after Torn and Downey roar off in Tripp's car:

So there it was. Somewhere in the night, a Manhattan book editor was prowling the streets of Pittsburgh; best-selling author at his side, dead dog in his trunk.

The ending is a touch too pat, but I was willing to forgive it because the rest of the movie is so great. Worth checking out.

The story behind the photo

There was a steam pipe explosion on Lexington Avenue in New York yesterday. One person died and thousands thought it was an act of terrorism. It wasn't.

The photo above (by Brendan McDermid of Reuters) was displayed on numerous web sites and in many newspapers today. In it, a police officer and a man who was nearby help a victim of the blast to get away and get medical help.

It's one of those iconic images that grabs your attention and makes you look and then look again. The woman has been injured and is bloody. She looks to be older than the two people helping her.

Who is she, you wonder? What's her story? That could have been someone I know. I hope she's all right.

The photo shows why, in this age of instantaneous moving images, a still photo can still be so powerful. Unlike a moving image, it gives us a chance to look and look again, to absorb the detail of a moment, and really stop to think. It's a reason why I don't think still photographs will ever go out of fashion.

The New York Times has the story of the photo, written by the man on the left, Kieran Beer.


Things you can learn from The New Yorker

I was reading Ian Frazier's article about meteorites in the current issue of The New Yorker when this word caught my attention in the lede:


Frazier uses it in describing our reaction to things that fall from the sky: "... we horripilate at the uncanny scent of our beginnings, or end."

I looked it up. "Horripilation" (the noun) is the name for what happens when your hair stands on end and you get goosebumps. "Horripilate" is the verb.

Just think of how you can add this to your vocabulary: "That movie was so scary I horripilated." People will think you are either very sophisticated and erudite, or very weird.


'Rear Window:' Watching the neighbors

I was sitting out on my deck a few minutes ago, watching the sun set and escaping the heat. It's been hot in Seattle the last couple of days. The apartment building across the alley shows all the signs of a heat wave: windows and blinds open, someone installing an air conditioner, people wearing less than their usual amount of clothing, curtains blowing slowly in the tiny breeze.

Looking at those windows, I was struck by their resemblance to movie screens: rectangular, wider than they are tall, perfect frames to the little films going on inside. That I noticed that resemblance at all is a testament to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," a perfect summer movie that appeals to the voyeur in all of us.

Hitchcock's film is set in the apartment of a New York news photographer (Jimmy Stewart) who is laid up with broken leg (notice how Hitchcock sets up that part of the story during the opening credits without a word of dialog). While Stewart waits for his leg to heal, he spies on his neighbors around the courtyard. Their windows are the shape of movie screens, each one framing a story, with Stewart and the audience filling in the details: the lusty newlyweds, a composer stuck writing a song, a lonely woman who may be pondering suicide, another young woman with too many men on her mind. And, of course, the battling couple across the way, the wife an invalid, the husband who may be planning a murder.

It's a great set up and a terrific film, one of Hitchcock's best. There's romance (Grace Kelly as Stewart's girlfriend who refuses to believe that murder may be afoot), comedy (Thelma Ritter as the visiting nurse who may be more suspicious than Stewart), suspense and sheer terror. Hitchcock's direction, the set (at the time, one of the largest ever built) and the superb sound design capture the lazy, over-heated feeling of a humid summer night. Music and conversation drift in to Stewart's window ... and images, too. What is really going on in each apartment? What's the story? Did the man across the way really murder his wife? And, is it wrong to watch someone's life like this? When we go to the movies, are we watching art or just being high-class voyeurs?

The last time I saw "Rear Window" with an audience was several years ago at the Fremont Outdoor Cinema here in Seattle. Many people in the crowd hadn't seen the film before and it was great fun watching them watch the movie and be amused and scared by it for the first time. The climax had people squirming in their seats with suspense and applauding the ending with delight.

Hitchcock would have loved it.

At the end, Hitchcock tweaks our voyeurism just a bit: Most of the stories we thought we knew turn out differently than we expected. After all: We're just the audience, but it's his movie.