Ain't No Party Like a Lemmon Party

Written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder

If you're anything like me (and God help you if you are), then you grew up familiar with Jack Lemmon as a primarily dramatic actor who slummed it in the "Grumpy Old" movies, and only occasionally remembered that he was Felix Ungar before Tony Randall. If you've made some effort, you'll also know Some Like It Hot. So it's been with no small amount of wonder and delight that I've been "discovering" more of his comedy work from the 60s recently. How To Murder Your Wife and Irma La Douce were among my favorite films viewed last year, and sometime down the road I'll tell you more of the why to that, but Lemmon was a key ingredient in both those pies. In the early-to-mid 60s, he could have walked away with the title "The Next Jerry Lewis." As Lewis' work was becoming more bitter and unkind (see: Hook, Line & Sinker -- or rather don't), Lemmon embodied a similar nebbishy, loosey-goosey enthusiasm and sweetness that Lewis had choked with sour grapes and pickled in scotch. Lemmon seems to have made a conscious effort to keep betting big on himself and his chops, to great success. The Apartment gives him plenty of opportunities to play with a range of emotions, writ both large and small.

Lemmon plays C.C.Baxter, a corporate cog with dreams of ambition. There are two significant locales in the film, and the one that's not the titular apartment is Consolidated Life of New York; an insurance corporation as soulless and impersonal as its acres of cold, sterile office spaces. Baxter is a minnow trying to swim with the sharks, but it's not his head for numbers that has made him popular with various department heads, but his callow willingness to let them use his apartment for liaisons their mistresses. Their casual disregard for him often keeps him waiting in the cold just to go home to his own place, which they have ransacked of booze and cheese crackers. Meanwhile, his landlady and her husband believe him to be an impossible lothario, owing to the ruckuses made by his self-serving bosses.

As shiny, austere and angular as the office is, his apartment is textural, cluttered and curvilinear -- a womb against an uncaring world which he allows to be violated by the same men who make the outside world so uncaring in the first place. Ralph Waldo Emerson said "I find that Americans have no passions, they have appetites." These are those Americans.

Baxter is interested in Miss Kubelik, an elevator operator at Consolidated Life of New York (an interesting name, given the closed atmosphere in which all aspects of one's life are pursued, and upon which all aspects appear dependent). Shirley MacLaine endows her with that jaded hope that no one else could do quite the same. She knows better, but she keeps following her heart into danger. The danger in this case is Mr. Sheldrake, one of the top corporate brass with whom she's had and off-and-on affair. It being "on" again, Sheldrake (played by Fred MacMurray with Romneyesque white-washed sleaze) takes an interest in Baxter, or more specifically, his apartment. The quid pro quo is that Baxter gets his own office while Sheldrake gets a key to the apartment. Baxter, unaware of the identity of the young lady in question, is filled with the confidence of a rising corporate raider, while his flirtations with Miss Kubelik seem to stall-out on the runway, owing to her renewed relations with their mutual employer.

After Sheldrake's secretary (and formerly featured flavor-of-the-year) Miss Olsen boozily sheds some light on his modus operandi during the company Christmas party, Miss Kubelik heads to the apartment to swallow a handful of sleeping pills. Meanwhile, Baxter, finally giving up on Kubelik, is about to "get lucky" with the floozy-ish wife of a jockey currently detained by Castro in Cuba. She fits the mold of all the corporately approved mistresses -- blonde, blowsy, and unburdened with an overabundance of brains. They all seemed to speak in that "yeah-yeah, sure-sure" Harley Quinn-y Brooklyn movie accent.

That's where things start happening very quickly. The get to his apartment. He discovers Miss Kubelik unconscious in his bed. He has to get rid of his date, roust the landlady's husband, Dr. Dreyfus to pump Miss Kubelik's stomach (later echoed in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous), keep Miss Kubelik awake long enough to be sure she won't die and chase off an amorous executive who did well at the Christmas party. All of these things are themselves made up of smaller comedy bits. It's kind of an atom smasher for "bits," all swirling together -- all the while never denying that it's still an attempted suicide scene. Though the scene is roughly in the middle of the film, it could easily be considered the climax in the story arc, with all previous scenes leading up to it and all following scenes being an untangling and categorization of the messes they've all made.

I'd like to avoid giving away endings as much as possible, so I'm going to leave off there, plot-wise. The Apartment is an unexpectedly adult comedy. I was going to say "for its time," but thinking about it, it's more mature than comedies in our time -- not just in its dealings with suicide, infidelity, and class warfare (well, we don't call it that when it's just the rich waging it), but in the emotional complexity of two people finding the nerve to really love honestly. There is a lot more going on here than the words they say. So much of the complexity is never spoken of, but shared via a continuum of emotional subtexts. Lemmon is harried and hopeful. He's aware of his struggle to become UNaware of the ways that he debases himself to climb, and finds the top to be the lowest place of all. MacLaine's eyes twinkle from within her dense canopy of eyelashes, that pursed smirk that says "Show me something, bud -- no, really, SHOW me something, please."

At Long Last Love

Woman of the Year - 1942
Written by Ring Lardner Jr. & Michael Kanin
Directed by George Stevens

Now, me, I never had much use for prissy, unimaginative women. I've always been more of a Lois Lane/Princess Leia/Veronica Mars kind of man. Naturally that put Katharine Hepburn on my radar, but this is the one where she sinks my battleship. Hepburn's character, Tess Harding may well be the ultimate refinement of that archetype. She's a smart, classy, fast-talkin', wise-crackin', tough-as-nails yet warm-hearted newspaper reporter -- because aren't all the best ones? I had assumed that Tess was the proto-Lois, but a little background research sounds like they both owe a debt to the Torchy Blane series from the 30s, and the entire river seems to flow back to Nellie Bly (who, herself, is legitimately fascinating). Regardless, it wasn't long before I was completely in love with Tess. Which works out well, because Spencer Tracy's character, Sam falls just as hard.

As writers for the same newspaper, on very different beats, they begin at loggerheads. Sam is something of an uncomplicated hump, a sports reporter who is completely at home in his world, with very little interest in shaking anything up -- the everyman. Tess is dynamic, almost a caricature of an FDR Liberal but not derisively so. She falls somewhere on the activity scale between "activist" and "activities freak" with a finger on the pulse of every issue of the era. A flip remark in an interview leads to a war of words in the press as the two debate the merits of baseball. This culminates in an educational field trip to a Yankee game (and an hilarious bit of schtick with a large hat). Naturally, Tess falls in love with baseball, and Sam falls in love with Tess.

Their romance is problematic. Though they both recognize early on that they are headed for Big Love, Sam is often frustrated. He just wants to be with Tess, but Tess lives at the center of a tornado of activities, demands, causes and hangers-on (later abbreviated into her disapproving personal secretary played by Reginald Owen). After a few confusing and/or disappointing get-togethers, Sam (with the encouragement of her uncle) decides to cut-out the time-wasting period of acquaintance and cut straight to the matrimony.

It's not long, however, before the go-go lifestyle of the modern woman gets in the way of wedded bliss. Their honeymoon is crashed by a political refugee and his supporters -- a fire upon which Sam throws more fuel by inviting his buddies from the bar, after having just told them not to expect him. Once Sam explains to an old girlfriend that they JUST got married, word of mouth spreads and both groups excuse themselves with wide-eyed knowing looks. This highlights one of Tess' main flaws; she's just a girl that cain't say no, even if "no" would be a perfectly acceptable answer.

The demands on Tess continue to ratchet up. She's more and more engaged in the cause of Italian refugees, and Sam feels more and more sidelined. This highlights Sam's main flaw; he's a bit of a baby. This part of the story feels very much like The Love Parade (Lubitsch; Chevalier/MacDonald, 1929), with the mas masculino male feeling/acting like a pouty little boy because his strong wife is gettin' it done. I appreciate that this is a very realistic reaction for a lot of men in their times (and sadly, ours), but I have little-to-no respect for that. Fortunately, Sam manages it a little better than Count Renard. Tess, less fortunately, handles it fairly poorly.

What Sam takes to be a discussion of having children turns out to be the very sudden introduction of their new son, an Italian refugee Tess could not refuse. She tells Sam and herself that she believes the child is what their marriage needs to hold them together, but it has far more to do with her own weakness. She can't say no. She tends to want to solve every problem on her own rather than engage Sam on a vulnerable level. Tess herself seems to have come from a fairly WASP-y, Ivy League family where children were often left to the care of household staff, thus assumes that she will be able to do the same after no consultation with her spouse. Granted, the little boy is also one adorable bambino.

Farm-raised Sam has a problem with this, and it will eventually be the element that drives them apart. It was one thing to neglect him -- he's a man, and though hurt, he can take it -- but to throw a child into that world just isn't fair or right. This was my least favorite wrinkle in the movie, because even while scolding Tess, the filmmakers themselves were fairly callous about the way they used the child as a plot device to come and go as needed.

I suppose most of the things that I find somewhat bothersome (mostly in retrospect) can be explained by historical context. In the end, Tess tries -- and fails disastrously -- to become the "perfect wife" that she thinks Sam wants. Of course, if that's what he'd wanted, he never would have married Tess, and finally says so.

Then he immediately treats her as an invalid, because how else is an already-married couple going to round out a 40s romantic comedy other than "expecting?"

The thing I loved about the film -- indeed the predominant thing TO love -- is Hepburn's embodiment of Tess. Tracy stands back and lets her light up every scene with her fire. There's lots of great verbal, physical and situational humor here, but it would all matter far less without her seductive energy.

AFTERWORD: I must admit that, while familiar, George Stevens wasn't a household name for me. It is now. Stevens, if you're equally as unaware as I was, directed Gunga Din, Swing Time, Shane, Giant and The Greatest Story Ever Told (you know, because he was humble) among others in his 30+ year career in feature films. Ring Lardner Jr. was one of the Hollywood Ten; writers and directors who defied the HUAC on the basis of the First Amendment, and thus he was jailed and blacklisted. Much of his work remains officially uncredited, including Laura and episodes of the 50s Robin Hood TV series, but his greatest triumph (and vindication) would have to be the screenplay for M*A*S*H as well as uncredited contributions to the TV series. He won Oscars for both Woman of the Year and M*A*S*H, and is rumored to have won another one using a borrowed name.

Everybody's Got a Hungary Heart

The Shop Around the Corner - 1940
Written by Samson Raphaelson (see link for other credits)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

The Shop Around The Corner is best known nowadays as the movie that "You've Got Mail" was based on.

HEY WAIT, COME BACK! It's really okay!

While "Mail" has become a modern milestone for exceptional achievements in the saccharine arts, its predecessor delivers the genuine sweetness of vine-ripened fruit. The cast is rich and delicious with endearing performances from a cast that knows when to hurry up, when to slow down, and how to share the feeling of love among the family of employees at Matuschek & Co.

Jimmy Stewart is the head clerk at Matuschek & Co., a variety store in Budapest. He's Jimmy Stewart -- what more do you want? Mr. Matuschek, the store owner, is played by Frank Morgan (who you'll know as the Wizard of Oz) in the really show-stealing performance of the movie. Morgan must be at times arrogant, bumbling, suspicious, delighted, self-conscious, affectionate, furious, brokenhearted, magnanimous and suicidal, and he accomplishes all with such tenderness that you can even feel for him when he's airing the grievances of the capitalist.

There's no big-store-little-store plot thread here. Stewart's unlikely/obvious love interest is Margaret Sullavan, a street-smart gal in search of a job and a better class'a fella. The store owner hires her when she manages to flummox the infuriatingly in-charge Stewart. She's suitably sassy, daffy, snotty and adorable. Naturally she and Stewart get along like peas and catheters.

Other charmers in the cast are the sweetly downtrodden Pitrovich played by Felix Bressart, William Tracy as the delivery boy Pepi who becomes an overnight captain of industry when finally offered the chance to take his first step up the corporate ladder, and even Joseph Schildkraut was engaging as the obsequious proto-douche Vadas.

The character relations within the store define the narrative arc here. While the romance weaves in and out with increasing frequency, it's really the activities in the store, particularly the dynamic between Stewart and Morgan that give the story its momentum and heart.

I've Been All the Way to Vorkuta... But I've Never Been to Me

Call of Duty: Black Ops - 2010
Studio: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
First-Person Shooter (2010)

The Call of Duty franchise has become the 500 lb. gorilla of the video game industry, and most of this is due to some very good choices, as well as a not-terribly-imaginative gaming public. Right off the bat, I'm going to admit that I avoided the series for years because I'm just not that interested in the real-world military, but finally, when I found a used copy of COD4:Modern Warfare, I decided to see what all the hubbub was about, gameplaywise. I have very little interest in spending time online getting screamed at by racist 13 year olds, so I was coming at this from an angle of a pure single player experience. I was, quite despite myself, bowled over by the well-balanced combination of excellent choices made by the game's studio, which in the case of the Modern Warfare iterations of the series, was Infinity Ward. Every choice is designed to keep the game dramatic, highly stimulating, easily digestible, and most of all; at all times FUN. Everything that the Modern Warfare games are, Black Ops is even more so.

Black Ops is an intensely ridiculous game, and I love it for that. All the machismo that Duke Nukem Forever wished it had, was here all along. The series has always loved its "Bro Moments" -- the lingering gun-tosses and manly hand-holding rescues -- but Black Ops is Bro-ier than fraternity of soldiers bare-knuckle brawling, which is pretty much describes every character in the game, come to think of it. It's positively Bro-Mosexual.

For example, one scene in particular trumps virtually all other Bro-Moments -- not just in the series, but it gives Michael Bay a run for his money. Both MW1 and MW2 have the hand clutching rescues, but in Black Ops, one intensely dramatic scene (MID-LEVEL, mind you!) has THREE men in a chain of white-knuckle rescue, hanging high above Kowloon streets, on TOP of which, one man is shot through the head, mid-rescue resulting in a Slow-mo Triple Bro "Nooo-o-o-o" Mo. It was SO dramatic, I had to pause the game for laughing. Don't get me wrong -- this is what makes the game so bloody awesome.

How else is it awesome? You get to kill EV-ER-Y BO-DY. If the United States of America has killed them, YOU will probably get to kill them here. Cubans, Russians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Germans & British -- all jump out for you to mow down as the CIA operatives and Russian soldier players will steer through the conflicts of the 20th Century. Oh yeah... AND zombies, in a separate mode. It's a masterpiece of gratuitous excess.

Yes, if you have a conscience, murdering the rainbow can be disturbing -- but that's not what you came here for. From a gaming perspective, it's nice to have a little more variety of targets than the primarily middle eastern palette of the MW games and the entire Bavarian population killed off in the series' previously WWII-centric titles. What this also means, however, is that the levels are the most widely varied in the series -- and scores highly against the FPS genre in that regard. Levels range from the Arctic to the jungles of SE Asia, wild to urban, exploding battlefields to tight rat holes, flat to hilly to outright vertical, engaged in stealth ops with a single partner to a mass prison break from a Soviet gulag. It has the kind of spirit of adventure more commonly seen in pure fantasy.

As such, there's always another new twist on the gameplay in service to narrative. Mostly, these are great at adding a new layer of experience, and I loved them. Unfortunately, there are a few places where the variations are implemented badly, the net effect of which yanks you hard OUT of the experience rather than tugging you deeper into it. One example of this is a level in a Vietnamese river where the player character and his partner swim under some boats to pull a stealth attack on a group of VC. The on-screen directions tell you to do this, but they don't tell you HOW you're supposed to achieve it unless you're in just the right spot, and the game's radar does not direct you to the correct spot. This resulted in several very confused and frustrated deaths for me before ultimately turning to the internet for answers. That really interrupted the experience for me, as well as a clumsy run-and-jump moment hampered by controls with priorities other than run-and-jumping and a few other lesser distractions. These aggravations are ultimately mitigated by all that DOES work. The swift boat level alone makes up for the swimming glitch. Yes, they ponied up for the Rolling Stones.

One of the things that the Duty franchise is most known for is its use of heavy "scripting" in levels -- progress-triggered events from the release of the next wave of enemies, to lines of dialog, cutscenes, explosions, helicopter crashes, and so on. Now me, I mostly love 'em. A lot of gamers don't because they interrupt the action, and siding briefly with them, the levels DO tend to include a lot of unskippable scenes, which is an unfortunate choice for a series that so consistently makes fast, fun choices.

Despite the numerous references back to previous entries in the franchise, and the passing mention of Duke Nukem, the game that Black Ops REALLY reminds me of is the original GoldenEye 007 for N64. There's an uncanny similarity -- snow, jungle, rappelling into a Russian installation, not-terribly-clever enemies, distinct levels that don't drag on forever...

At the end of the day, no, Black Ops isn't the hardest game, and that gains it a lot of scorn from the boy-men who want to keep the rest of us out of their club, but in terms of just plain having fun, that's exactly the way I like it. It's a speedball mixed from pure Bolivian Michael Bay and uncut Afghan Paul Greengrass, wrapped in bacon and fired up your ass with a roman candle to the beat of "Like A Rock." It's intensely dramatic, or maybe dramatically intense, yet impossible to take seriously except when it breaks. The story is the best in the series, which isn't saying much, and the always good story-TELLING (game narrative) is the best its been -- aided in no small part by the best defined and best expressed characters yet. Call of Duty: Black Ops isn't so much a game you PLAY, as much as it overwhelms you in a manly fashion -- and like most "manly fashion," it can be thoroughly silly to behold.