Swans Commentary » swans.com December 28, 2009  



King Of What World?


by Art Shay





(Swans - December 28, 2009)   A movie director and lots of good critics have just acclaimed James Cameron king of the world for the second time since he crowned himself for Titanic. This time the anointing is for an intergalactic 3-D movie with nine-foot tall, blue skinned, athletically built (nine-inch tushes, sexy despite long tails) myrmidons who fly around on four-paw-drive dragons and want to keep the earth greener than we do, green enough to support their blues. It is great to see Roger Ebert turn a handspring with what's left of his tough old corporeal self. Movies!

They're in our lives to the extent that they're encroaching on all channels. They become realer than real. Who'd imagine there'd be pleasure and royalties in watching a bunch of harried people race from cab to rickshaw to jungle flat-boats impelled by Chrysler engines converted at last to something capable of more than 9 miles a gallon. And who'd imagine caring if someone sitting around a fire on Fiji learns he is out of the running for a million bucks because, like Tiger and some admirers, he tried to explore openings for a hot young man outside of marriage.

There seems to be empathy to spare for the loser of millions of Buick bucks, and in TV money on the wing.

Speaking of which, a food company has assembled a bunch of potential losers -- weight losers mostly -- paying a few 445-pounders a thousand-bucks motivation bribe for each lost pound. They've artfully maneuvered these hopeless cases into winners of big prizes as they lose 12, 15, and 20 pounds a week under medical and coach-driven exercise, weights flashing in the gyms. Would you eat a Hershey bar knowing ingesting one will cost you $675? And an M & M perhaps nine bucks? Even chocolate starts to taste disgusting if you're charged for each bite.

Each payoff comes with a before and after visual record. The ultimate makeover. Much more inspiring as a personal miracle than religion, where merely a soul or genuflection is involved. "Grant me continence and purity," mumbled St. Augustine to a crowd of fellow sinners, "but not yet."

Turns out that money might be the elixir needed for us to stay on our diets and to perform impossible tasks, which the better movie makers have understood from the beginnings of their weird profession. Remember all those flicks about men having to get married to a virgin by the first of the New Year to inherit grandpa's estate?

Talismen, holy grails, Xanadus in Florida and on islands guarded by wild animus... boxes of treasure, magical artifacts that, like Aladdin lamps, grant, for a few energetic rubs, wishes that steam up our pleasure lines. Treasure maps and ciphers, secret marks upon the body, notes from the underground and the shaky religious underworlds and similar after-life structures that fascinate us. And finally, this very week, the cross-over artifact: The very kindergarten sled that figured in William Randolph Hearst's childhood, or Citizen Kane's, has now been purchased by a Hearst heir to have and to hold for richer and for richer, to slide along the snows of yesteryear along with the freighty legend in its tiny wake. Rosebud. The no-horse open sleigh. Is Patti Hearst's machine gun next -- mint, hardly fired, free delivery and Morocco case thrown in by Craig's List?

So why not Dooley Wilson's two-tones flat piano? With a Dooley disk of him playing "As Time Goes By" whenever Ingrid Bergman slithers in to Rick's joint in Casablanca? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, why would she have to slither into his joint? Merely as Akim Tamaroff had it in another flick, "to prowoke?" Naw -- just to build on the madness of her recent affair with dashing Humphrey Bogart while still married to white-suited left-wing hero Victor Laszlo, who was snapping his fingers at the Nazis en route to America or concentration camping elsewhere, marking time until he could get the vital papers of passage from Rick that would land him on the last plane from Casablanca to Lisbon to America...

Oh, if it were only possible to borrow those papers for the cross-over movie museum -- those papers Peter Lorre hustled to Rick when they were found on the bodies of two dead German couriers.

Remember when Nazi Colonel Conrad Veidt asks Rick why he came to Casablanca, Rick says, "For the waters." "But there are no waters here," says the Nazi. "I was misinformed," counters Bogart with the same sang-froid to spare he had in the marvelous flashbacks of him and Ingrid coursing through Paris while falling in love in a convertible with no front windows, to make the filming easier. Sang-froid to spare he would use, even covered with Zambezi leeches, seducing starchy Katharine Hepburn on The African Queen.

This, as fate goes, was all, all, before the days in Paris that legendary photojournalist Robert Capa was helping Ingrid fuck her brains out along the Seine. He shared this pleasant chore with the famous harmonica player, left-winger Larry Adler -- and Capa seemed to have a strange edge. He looked just like Ingrid's late father -- a Bohemian who... oh, look up Ingrid's shrink at the time, or her outraged dentist of a husband who wasn't enough for her if you care about such incestuous byplay in a family-rated article like this.

In going over the considerable records of their time in Paris, incipient photojournalist that I was, I jealously rooted for fellow-fotog Capa to prevail over all comers, and he did -- even the great director George Stevens (see below) who played poker with him, and even Hemingway on special occasions at the Scribe Hotel. It is known that Capa hated Hollywood and thought Casablanca a comedy, disparaging Bogart, the clownish Nazis, and icy Victor Laszlo, dead or alive. And the free world of ideas he coldly represented, down to conducting half Rick's orchestra in the Marseillaise while Conrad and his Rats were stiffly grinding out "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles" plus a phrase or two of the Horst Wessel song in a musical face-off won by the Allies, judging by the teary faces of the Marseillaise singers. This of course impels the Germans to close poor Rick's club. Laszlo has let us in on Rick's secret, that even functioning as a lowlife American joyboy in redoubts of politics all over the world -- like in Spain and Czechoslovakia -- somehow Rick has always ended up on the right side. Adhering to Grieg's stricture for Ase: The trick is to navigate the rushing stream of life without getting your shoes wet.

The right side, the dry side, as carefully and secretly adumbrated by the great refugee Jewish director Mike Curtiz and his band of brother writers, the Epsteins, who would live into their nineties and proudly explain they stumbled on the classic "beginning of a glorious friendship" ending just standing around with Claude Rains in the chill dawn of a foggy valley airport.

To prowoke what? Akim's question still hangs there. The marvelous plot on which Hollywood play-fully hung the world's fate in the thirties? (As Time Goes By was copyrighted in 1931.) The fate of the Swedish sexpot, her lover-husband-to-be (disregarding her Swedish dentist husband who would become the father of Pia -- she had been unfaithful to Victor only when she was convinced the Nazis had killed him)? In those days it was impossible for beautiful international women of affairs to avoid one with a dashing photojournalist who would, alas, be killed a few years later in Vietnam on a stupid walk on the tame side through a rice paddy.

At the time I jealously listened to the stories of my Life magazine cohorts -- those talented hommes de moyenne sensuelle refugees a few years older than me -- bedding Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner. And one babe who came under Howard Hughes's Hughes Tool window every Friday evening when Hughes sent an envelope containing $1,000 cash down to her on a fish line. One PR man renowned for being renowned, Russell Birdwell, had figured out being on a Life cover was worth $5 million in career gold. "Of course," one of these world-class star fuckers, Peter Stackpole, told me when our careers crossed in 1948 near the Bay Bridge, "we always assumed the lovely ladies were in love with our entire romantic aspect."

I often wondered how it went: I've gotta shoot you for a Life cover. How about at my home this afternoon? The New York office is in a hurry to get the cover on the stands the week your movie comes out... The cover light is perfect at our home in the afternoon at four. Sheila's away. We could swim first. Do you have a red bikini? I thought I'd break in my new underwater Leica..."

Only once did the system fail. A starlet who had traded a piece of her body to an influential cover fotog found herself at a Life fest in New York several weeks on. Before anyone could tell her that her cover had been rescheduled a few weeks down the line -- because of the Pearl Harbor issue demanding a military cover -- the little lady went up to Executive Editor Wilson Hicks and used a Hollywood phrase on him: How dare one of your photographers blow smoke up my ass, etc. Hicks was shocked, shocked.

Fucked her way onto the cover; talked herself right off it. An American lack-of-success story. I recall hearing only one Playboy model ever missed a similar connection, only because her imminent wedding interfered with Hef's schedule and her priest interceded. Or heeded her mother, a faithful parishioner and renowned nympho in her time, still above reproach or studio anathema for past Augustinian sins.

It's hard to believe pastimes like sex are passed from one generation to the next in hot circles and advertisers fill the tabloids with ads to gape at them.


A Place in the Sun, Giant, Shane, etc.


I had hoped to make a case at this point for considering George Stevens, his two Oscars and Screen Writers Guild awards as a worthy candidate for top-of-the-world director, but Stevens peaked long before nine-foot blue giants exuded sex, green propaganda, philosophy, and 3-D. And exploding cities.

Besides, my real case for Stevens is that after one meeting with him just before D-Day, in which he outlined how he planned to cover the invasion, I came within a hair of sneaking away from the Air Force and my expensive training as a navigator, and volunteering to do the war through a 16 mm wind-up Bell&Howell fuelled by an unending supply of those yellow Kodachrome film packages shuffled by writer film-freaks like William Saroyan and Irwin Shaw.

Cutting ahead of the chase, Stevens and his crew of 24 film veterans and writers did in fact provide the ONLY color film record of a good piece of that invasion and the war that sprang from its thews. I have the seen the film and it put great film guys like Spielberg, if not to shame, to envy. Those liberated French mademoiselles breaking off from knitting and cheering at the sight of a Stevens camera, and kissing every GI in sight! Those kids breaking into smiles and little European skips of joy at the sight of these liberating Americans and their cameras... The summer water spray of the Channel surf came back to the face of my memory, the noise, the shouts, the, uh, Kodachrome blues and greens -- and unfaked flesh tones -- all, all came back.

And without faking a shot -- just by being there, like General Ike had envisioned it -- to show people back home what war was like in natural color.

A clear menu for movie directors in any age. Beyond what Ike had foreseen, came one of his memos to Stevens. He wanted the opening of the death camps recorded down to the piles of bones and the victims not quite dead of starvation. "So this may never happen again."

Never mind what all the other great directors, including James Cameron, have done to approximate how it really was. It was Stevens who brought back the real prize, which is still being edited (!) into sensible sequences. And in living color, on film invented in the thirties by two Jewish high school kids working in their families' constricted New York apartments with their high school science teachers leading them to Kodak and patents. And their landlords concerned they were using up all the hot water in their tenement. To a wonderful film only recently retired after more than 80 years of service!

I'm not sure George Stevens, viewing some of my high school scrapbooks, would have given me a chance to cover my war. More likely he'd direct me to some Signal Corps school where I could have learned enough to join the big boys as a grunt.

The politics of Hollywood have always interfered with its big awards. It was arch-conservative Cecil B. Demille, in his stewardship of the Screen Directors' Guild, who launched an absolutely unwarranted war against directors of foreign provenance, saying their strange names with contempt as he bore false witness to their refugee "un-Americanism"... This is all on the record, and it is also on the record that Stevens, and stalwarts like John Huston, took De Mille on and defeated him in the limited hustings of their nascent organization.

Stevens emerged to do some of his biggest pictures, and to advance movies as an art. But his unorthodox, unstoried wartime work will live forever. I don't see Cameron leaving the bridge of the Titanic and his ten-year stewardship of the entertaining, technologically-spry cash machine Avatar to take on the world as it really is or should be. To earn the stripes of a world leader of such a strange world as film.

My personal world has often crossed that of film. But nowhere as entertainingly as it did with one of its true stars, Jessica Lange. The beautiful lady had just appeared in the King Kong successor of the same name, and I was shooting her picture for Time as she relaxed at her cabin in Minnesota. When she asked why I had gone pensive, I told her I was imagining what it would be like to be King Kong and race through the woods with Jessica Lange in my arms.

She laughed, and put out her arms. I grabbed her, lifted her up in a simian manner, and gave my Leica to Jessica's girlfriend who was waiting to have lunch with us. So now, forever, I have a phoney -- but real -- record of how the above fantasy might look lent a bit of fictional directing passing itself off as reality.


Pic: "Lange & Shay" - © Art Shay - Please do not steal - Size: 16k
Lange & Shay
© Art Shay


For a glorious moment I was King Kong absconding with a beautiful American blonde. It didn't matter that I would, a few scenes later, be machine-gunned atop the Empire State Building -- a tiny piece of which, I make clear, my wife's father prudently left her in his will -- I had made off with the lady fair who, amid shrieks of bouncing laughter, shouted, "I love you King Kong."


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About the Author

Art Shay is the author-photographer of more than fifty books, the former staff Washington correspondent for Time-Life and Life Bureau Chief in San Francisco. Shay has had 25,000 published pictures including 1,050 covers of magazines, books, and annual reports for such clients as Ford, 3M, National Can, Motorola and ABC-TV. His pictures hang in the National Portrait Gallery (Heffner, Durocher, Robert Crumb) in the Chicago Art Institute. His work is currently exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (through June 29, 2008) following an exhibition at the Gallerie Albert Loeb in Paris, France. The April 2008 issue of North Shore magazine (Chicago) says that "his pictures have the psychology of Dostoevsky, the realism of Hemingway, and the metaphor of Melville... He's in the Pantheon of great photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Strand, and Stieglitz." The Daily Herald (Chicago suburban) of May 5, 2008, called him "the pre-eminent photojournalist of the 20th century..."



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/ashay18.html
Published December 28, 2009