Posts Tagged ‘cinema and memory’

Little Miss Marker

March 12, 2011

This photo, a still for Little Miss Marker, meant a lot to me growing up. It is included in Shirley Temple’s autobiography Child Star, which I had a copy of in my room. I had a very big floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and her book was on one of the weird upper shelves. Some adult books had been left there and forgotten about by my parents. They weren’t adult in any kind of exciting way, just serious and thick. Child Star was hardbound in black cloth that had collected a coat of fuzzy dust and some milky stains. It was a long time before I actually read the book, not until I was 12 or 13, but I would pore over the pictures in the inserts, and especially over this one.

Part of what intrigued me about this picture is how not like a child’s picture it feels. The energy is more like that of a pouty twenty-year-old who thinks she knows a lot. I also particularly liked pictures where smiles could disappear and return just by staring long enough. When Shirley’s smile is there she’s casual and matter-of-fact. Without it a weighted, almost accusatory sexuality creeps in. The dress she’s wearing is itself defiant, the worn chambray splitting at her shoulder and above the babydoll seam. That latter hole was mesmerizing, not just because it was suggestive but also in its deliberateness—there would be no normal source of stress to cause a tear like that.

I remember thinking that there was a quality here that I wanted someday. Shirley’s movies were often about a hardscrabble, streetwise little girl. It was a persona I romanticized; I wanted that toughness which was also cute and a little sexy. I thought girls’ faces looked prettiest with a sour mouth and smudges of dirt. I never saw Little Miss Marker (it wasn’t at my video store, nor part of the pink Playhouse Video VHS collection that I had) which increased its mystique. The harsh syllables of the title fit with that scrappy dress. There’s another Shirley movie called Little Miss Broadway that I had found pretty uninteresting. I imagined this to be its darker, more vital cousin.

The still is used on a DVD cover for the film now, and it’s colorized—they put a patch under the hole!

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Fried Chicken and The Secret Garden

November 30, 2010

The other day I had real wings for the first time in a couple years (from our favorite place here in Pittsburgh, Spak Brothers) and as I was maneuvering my teeth around the bones to get at all the bits of meat, I was struck by a vivid memory of fried chicken eating in a movie. It was such a strong and familiar sensation that I thought it must be from something I watched a lot in my childhood, but I couldn’t place it. Sure enough it hit me as I was trying to fall asleep the next night—Maggie Smith in the carriage with the drumstick in Agnieszka Holland’s Secret Garden! It strikes me now that the chicken in the movie could very probably just be roasted, even though I would have sworn it was fried as a kid. I felt fried chicken was anachronistic, and yet I was so distracted by the audacity of that choice that I didn’t question it. Either way it feels like a funny thing to pack. She picks up Mary from Liverpool very late, hours past when all the other orphans from India get picked up, and then they ride all night and Maggie Smith eats cold chicken in the carriage for breakfast. It sets the tone nicely—Maggie Smith’s Mrs. Medlock smacking away as she nonchalantly drops devastating details of Mary’s forthcoming life at her uncle’s manor, a large estate surrounded by an expanse of beautiful damp moors.

I recently rewatched my childhood VHS tape of the movie with my boyfriend. He liked it pretty well; I was overjoyed to see how little difference there was in my experience of it now compared to as a child. Plus there are all these treats that I was oblivious of as a kid, like Irène Jacob, Zbigniew Preisner, and Roger Deakins. The atmosphere created by the film is so wondrous and enveloping, in large part due to Preisner’s score. It still feels big and dangerous and vital to me. I love Kate Maberly, I love the way she over-enunciates (“My name is Mary Lennox”) and the way she looks at things with a little restrained pout.

This film has figured quite prominently in my history, helping shape my love of looking in cinema, as well as my inclination towards an aesthetic of dull cold and heavy clothing. Even though this is a movie about spring, it really romanticizes the mystery of winter. There are other little visceral moments that have stuck with me in addition to the fried chicken. There is a part when Mary approaches a breakfast tray that was set in her room hours earlier, and drags her index finger through the cold porridge and puts it in her mouth. I was startled upon rewatching it how quick and unexaggerated that moment is. I so relished it as a child that I used to whip my ice cream at night (I ate Breyer’s vanilla ice cream before bed every night; if you know me this should make perfect sense) with a spoon until it resembled porridge consistency and then tried to make a defined path with my finger as I drug it across and ate a glob. Swirled-up ice cream of course has a different texture and weight than cold porridge, so I had to perfect a way of cradling the glob so that it wouldn’t slide off my finger.

There is also the scene where Mary learns to jump rope in a hallway off of the kitchen. (In the background a cook is rolling out dough—elsewhere in the film we spend more time with her as she sings “Greensleeves” while slapping around and rolling a beautifully pliable little mound of dough. I think of that dough when making bread; it has the most dreamily perfect consistency.) Mary scuffs her little boots on the stone floor as she attempts to skip over the rope. I loved these noises, like scratchy, quick flaps in tap dancing. I hated my world of sneakers and carpets and I loved how her skirt kept getting snagged by the rope. It made me associate heavy full skirts with stone floors and dark hallways.

The scene where Mary, Dickon, and Colin chant and try to contact the spirit of Colin’s dead mother is the only thing I cringed at when rewatching the film. This movie also contains the lamest onscreen/offscreen kiss ever. It happens right at a cut as Mary and Colin laugh their way out of a weirdly loud smack, the physical component of which we never see. As a girl I was not amused by a kiss surrounded in giggles. Was it important or not? I refused to believe it really was a kiss for a long time until I sadly conceded that that was the intention.

While writing this post I discovered that the whole movie is on YouTube preserved in the beloved 1.33:1 of VHS, probably the only way I’ll ever want to see it. Around the eight-minute mark you can watch the chicken scene. I see now Maggie also has a hard-boiled egg to snack on. Again I am struck by how short this scene is. It’s strange how your mind grips on to little gestures in films, enough to create a sort of faux sensory memory. And there are other gestures you just want, so much that you appropriate them to create a brief, private cinematic feeling. This was very important to me as a child and still is.

Warm TCM Memories

September 27, 2008

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, there was a big snowstorm that happened to coincide with Paul Newman’s birthday. TCM had a tribute that, as I think about it now, must have lasted a couple days or so. Delicious January days home from school when I could spend the day cuddled up on the couch and watch movies all day. I think I probably only had a vague understanding of who Paul Newman was before the series, but in my nascent cinephilia I was eager to let TCM take me anywhere it wanted.

The film I remember that really did it (fittingly, since it was his first starring role) was Robert Wise’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. The dark-but-not-gritty shots of loud trains and dirty buildings (atmospheric bits that TCM later excerpted for their TV ratings clip that would play before each film) with this beautiful brash boy bursting within them were devastating to this preteen. Adding to the magic was radiant Pier Angeli, whom I knew immediately from my thorough research of James Dean’s life as the mythic “one true love” who killed herself fifteen years after he died. Until that point I’d seen a few pictures of her from unenlightening angles, but now suddenly I saw her alive and so inviting. I taped the film (as I did nearly everything on TCM in those days) and would rewatch it in the upcoming years before college when I wanted something warm and comforting.

Until They Sail (also by Robert Wise) was another film they played. Watching it, I was impressed by the cast (Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons, Sandra Dee, Piper Laurie) and assumed it to be fairly well known until I investigated it afterwards and found that it was mostly forgotten. Paul Newman in uniform and all these lovesick sisters! And in the dreamy, far-off location of New Zealand. I don’t think I’d seen Sandra Dee in anything before because I was really struck by what a cute, nice-seeming girl she was, and I wished I could have such big eyes and live by the ocean in quiet grays and whites… The Young Philadelphians was another film I saw then, and this time the blacks and whites were incredibly crisp–heightened by the pairing of Paul Newman’s sharp tux with the white chiffon debutante dress worn by an achingly luminous Barbara Rush. I really don’t remember anything else about the film other than those images, and some nice hunky fist-fights.

After my new crush started I was hungry for as much information as I could get, and what was at first a girlish attraction grew into unabashed love and admiration. I learned about his storybook marriage to Joanne Woodward and watched The Long, Hot Summer, which had all the gratifying tangles and professed hatreds and eventual couldn’t-denys that made my heart soar. (I didn’t even realize until much later that that had been Orson Welles underneath all that sweaty sunburn. And I sought out Days of Wine and Roses for more Lee Remick, though I think this is still my favorite performance of hers, with the wonderful Southern name of Eula Varner.) I wanted to see all the films they did together, and went out and bought a VHS of Paris Blues (Diahann Carroll!) and tried to wade my way through the unpleasantly melodramatic From the Terrace (why would I want to watch them fight?).

Of course this was all before I came to really understand his incredible grace as an actor, but the main reason I was so sad after waking up this morning was that he had really meant something to me personally. During the formative years of my life, as I tried to make sense of the way boys and girls came together and pulled apart, I drew a lot of reassurance from Paul Newman’s proof that good looks didn’t inevitably cancel out kindness, loyalty, good-natured intelligence. And it was a comfort to know he was still around, passionately working to do some good for the world. I will miss you dearly.