Thursday, April 25, 2013

Read & Reel Part 2: Reading Jeanine Basinger

Anyway, as I was saying in my last post, I was missing that David Shipman book so bad; I was missing it like hell.  I woke myself up one night sniffing the air because I imagined I was leafing through the book and smelling the pages.  (Kind of a combination grade school paste-and-vanilla odor.)  I had it bad.  I needed at that moment to read about movie history/criticism.

That's when I thought of Jeanine Basinger.

I first encountered Basinger a couple of years ago when The Spawn and I were watching a DVD of Sergeant York.  Basinger was doing the commentary, and we both enjoyed her insights. I actually blurted out in the middle of the movie, "Who is that woman?  She's fantastic!"  Had she written any books?  I checked.  She had.  I filed the information away for future use.

 When my silver screen need sat on my chest and throttled me, my thoughts turned to Jeanine Basinger.  I wondered if her books were on Kindle, since I needed them NOW.  Joy!  Three of them were available in that format:  The Star Machine, Silent Stars and I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies.  I grabbed 'em all, spending a shocking amount of money and I'm not a bit sorry.  I'm not even using my customary rationalization, "Well, I don't smoke or drink..."

If I had bought these books just for the movie stills, they would have been well worth the money. Gorgeous pictures, page after page.  (This is also the point at which I learned that my Kindle can zoom in and make images larger.)  But there's also Jeanine Basinger, a film history professor at Wesleyan putting everything in historical Hollywood context, and giving it all that extra something that comes from being a lifelong movie addict.  She can do the scholarly thing, but she's mostly warm and accessible and she knows and knows and KNOWS about movies.  One of the things that amused and delighted me was that since she worked as an usher at her hometown movie theater, she saw movies multiple times and remembers years later what audiences reacted to strongly.

The relationship between the actors and the audience is a theme that Basinger refers to often. Something else I found interesting is her assertion that viewers would build up 'knowledge' about an actor or actress (based on personality and types of roles they've played before) and apply this to the current film. The movie makers knew this and were thus able to rely on a sort of shorthand in telling the story.

And the movies!  I had to stop reading and make lists and actually go view a couple of the films (The Power And The Glory (1933) and Dodsworth (1936) which I found on YouTube.  I watched those while I was reading I Do and I Don't, her newest book, which was published earlier this year.

While I enjoyed the performer profiles in Silent Stars immensely, when I tried watching clips of some of Basinger's recommendations, I fidgeted when I had to watch for more than a few minutes at a time.  Although I've tried to fight the feeling, I find silent movies very hard going, except for a handful like Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Sunrise, Greed, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Lon Chaney movies.  I remember digging my nails into my palms at an Oklahoma State University filmathon and forcing myself to sit through all of Birth of a Nation.

The Star Machine, which was published in 2007, is a fascinating examination of the Hollywood Star System of the 30s-50s.  All the actors and actresses were put through this 'machine' with a variety of success.  Many of them thrived.  Some were destroyed, and a few got a bellyful of it and walked away without a backward glance.  One of the funniest parts of The Star Machine was reading highly critical studio notes about a young actor in the early 1950s that was being groomed for stardom, but was found wanting. His horseback riding skills were appraised as needing more work, among other things. Finally, he was released from his contract because he just wasn't showing promise.  It was Clint Eastwood.

I could blather for days about Jeanine Basinger's awesomeness, but this clip of her speaking about I Do and I Don't will serve you so much better.

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