Culture Notes: Whit Bissell Centenary

The centenary celebrations for Whit Bissell are winding down by now; you’re probably tired of hearing the endless tributes and thinkpieces paying tribute to the actor, born October 25, 1909. Of course I’m kidding: nobody pays elaborate, passionate tribute to Whit Bissell, and if people know his name it’s because of its humorous quality, an internal rhyme contained within a tiny, meek-sounding series of syllables – a name for a soda jerk or a vacuum cleaner salesman.

whitStill, a tribute. Whit Bissell might have been the first actor I could recognize as a character actor, a guy who turned up everywhere but rarely played leads. He has almost 300 credits listed on the Internet Movie Database, yet his actual total is surely higher than that when you factor in his ubiquitous TV appearances and uncredited movie work. But character actors are supposed to be colorful in some way: zany or grotesque, not cut out to be heroes but carrying some distinctive quality. Whit Bissell was like his name: he tended to white himself out. Even other people on screen looked bored by him sometimes.

A compact fellow, evidently prematurely white-haired, Bissell had a slightly severe face and a forceful voice, and thus played a lot of doctors and professors and figures of authority. I must have first known him as the military supervisor on The Time Tunnel, where (as he so often did) he fretted and crunched numbers and supplied a drag on the proceedings. He was on all the TV shows in the 1960s and 70s, including the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek, and stayed in movies, too, so often turning up for his one good scene or tiny fragment of story: The Magnificent Seven, The Manchurian Candidate, Hud.

Before he switched to TV-mostly work, Bissell did lots of differents parts, and it would be wrong to suggest that he always played the same drab, officious role, even if a lot of his stuff blends together; especially early on, he got to play neurotics, and his pinched face made his authority figures available to be untrustworthy at times. Good roles in Brute Force, Raw Deal, and He Walked by Night put him in the noir world as a sometimes sweaty, nervous type; he could bring on the badness, as in Riot in Cell Block 11. When it came time to essay a member of the crazed Frankenstein family tree, in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, he turned in a typically professional, steady performance, perhaps the least histrionic Dr. Frankenstein ever (despite the florid plot turns and dialogue).

He was repeating his duties there, more or less, from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and he did a lot of genre work during that era, which is another reason I came to know him so well when I was an adolescent: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Monster on the Campus are among the best of those. And when a framing story had to be added to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to re-assure the audience that the alien takeover wasn’t really coming to their town, of course it was Whit Bissell cast as the authority figure calming down Kevin McCarthy. I always enjoyed seeing him during this time, but my affection increased after I realized his name was Whit Bissell, that funny moniker that might have come from Mark Twain. How can you not like a guy named Whit Bissell?

People like him make movies go. You say, “Ah, there’s Whit Bissell,” and then he’s gone, off to pop up in something else in a few minutes on a different channel, then bound for some retro-TV station showing Wagon Train or Perry Mason or Mannix. In a hundred more years, he’ll still be doing that. Even the quietest character actor makes his permanent place.

This is Beeswax on the Rocks (Weekly Links)


None of your beeswax: the Hatcher sisters.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Michael Jackson’s This is It. “Debunks the theory that Jackson was working on a dud.”

Chelsea on the Rocks. “Sloppy and meandering and completely enamored of its shabby-chic subject.”

Irene in Time. “In Jaglom’s movies, it never seems to occur to an actor that silence and under-emphasis might qualify as human behavior.”

Beeswax. “The appreciation of unusual people.”

Act of God. “How to make sense of a bolt-from-the-blue occurrence.”

Movie Diary 10/28/2009

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009). It’s hard to know what exactly is happening with this movie, but relatively easy to dig it. Nic Cage, we like you untethered, and Herzog is just the man to throw away the leash. (full review 11/25)

Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, 2009). Maybe you don’t like the idea of Mumblecore, or young people navel-gazing, or whatever it is you don’t like about these kinds of movies. I submit that making a movie around a pair of non-acting siblings is justified if they are expressive and interesting enough to light up the screen, as Tilly and Maggie Hatcher are in this film. Good enough. (full review 10/30)

Movie Diary 10/27/2009

This is It (Kenny Ortega, 2009). Okay, better than anticipated. Dude may have been a freak, but at the end he had it together physically and creatively, and you can’t argue with his sense of theater. (full review 10/30)

The Horse Boy (Michel O. Scott, 2009). Doc about an autistic child, carried by his try-anything parents to the steppes of Mongolia. Raises a few questions about various kinds of responsibility in making a nonfiction film, but an interesting trip. (full review 11/6)

Skin (Anthony Fabian, 2009). Sophie Okonedo, with her refreshing quietness, plays a character from a bizarre true story of apartheid South Africa. She’ll get the Oscar push, which takes something away from a nicely-stated turn. (full review 11/6)

Act of God (Jennifer Baichwal, 2009). True tales of people hit by lightning, and the ways folks try to make sense of such random events. It’s got some gorgeous weather in it, and the different testimonials are tied together by Paul Auster’s memoir of being caught in a deadly lightning storm at age 14. (full review 10/30)

Movie Diary 10/26/2009

Irene in Time (Henry Jaglom, 2009). Jaglom’s still going at it, these days with his latest protegee, Tanna Frederick, who makes a point of not leaving any emotion unexpressed – but then it’s a Henry Jaglom movie, what would you expect? This time out the nattering women are talking about their fathers, the men are on the make. Makes you want to slap people. (full review 10/30)

Chelsea on the Rocks (Abel Ferrara, 2009). The legendary Manhattan landmark, given a kind of first-person oral history by denizens past and present. You just know off-camera interlocutor Ferrara is going to get himself onscreen eventually, and he doesn’t disappoint. (full review 10/30)

1983 Ten Best Movies

localhero3Recently I was on KUOW radio for one of my (once weekly, now intermittent) appearances, and I talked at some length about Local Hero, Bill Forsyth’s enchanted Scottish fable. (That show is archived here.) About the very earned magic of that film, and how it once led me on a detour in Scotland to find the seaside town where much of the movie was shot. I got a bunch of emails after the show aired, from people whose imaginations had been similarly fired by this beautiful film, a response that should not have surprised me at all. It’s that kind of movie: funny without being cute, sweet without being cloying, in touch with something authentic about (to borrow the title of a subsequent Bill Forsyth movie) being human. Watch it on a double bill with I Know Where I’m Going! and you may find yourself checking the train schedules for the Highlands.

What happened to Bill Forsyth? Evidently he became disenchanted with moviemaking, though rumors exist about a return. Let us hope. Local Hero, meanwhile, is the best movie of 1983, the year I began reviewing films regularly for a daily newspaper. Had a good debut week: The Right Stuff and Under Fire (a now forgotten, but rather potent movie) opened the same October day. Here are the ten best of 1983:

1. Local Hero (Bill Forsyth)

2. L’Argent (Robert Bresson)

3. Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer)

4. The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)

5. The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman)

6. Man of Flowers (Paul Cox)

7. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)

8. Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford)

9. Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge)

10. Entre Nous (Diane Kurys)

King of Comedy is maybe one of Scorsese’s three best movies, and possibly the last time De Niro pushed himself into something truly adventurous and energetic. Some of those other movies seem neglected now, which is a shame: Man of Flowers is a superb meditation on Art ‘n Life from a director whose interesting career is generally underappreciated, Tender Mercies (which gets half its rating from Robert Duvall’s performance) was highly regarded at the time, and Kurys seems to have fallen off the international map.

Just missing the list, some big-time directors with not-quite-their-best movies (Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia and Imamura’s Ballad of Narayama), plus Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, a wonderful film I’m afraid I haven’t seen since 1983. Next in line: one of Mike Nichols’ earthiest pictures, Silkwood, and the ingenious Harold Pinter backward-melodrama, Betrayal. I also really like some messed-up movies, especially Jim McBride’s often exhilarating Breathless and Francis Coppola’s Rumble Fish; and as official success stories go, you could do worse than Terms of Endearment and The Big Chill as your representatives. Squeeze in a nod for Woody Allen’s Zelig and the peppy conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy, and you’ve got yourself a decent little year. Especially for the Eighties.

Addendum: I can’t believe I posted this without mentioning Strange Brew, that landmark of Canadian cinema – nay, of Canadian culture. Beauty, eh?

Movie Diary 10/24/2009

You’ll Find Out (David Butler, 1940). When people review the new Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics box set, this is one of the titles that causes eye-rolling and excuse-making; although Karloff and Lugosi are both in the cast, the movie isn’t horror, and if the movie is a vehicle for anybody, it’s for radio cut-up Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge. (Complete with Ish Kabbible, a thoroughly 1930s-40s figure who fascinated me in the 1970s.) Horror it certainly is not – although a couple of floating heads in a seance sequence summon up unexpected gooseflesh – but the movie fits neatly into the tradition of haunted-house comedies, and it’s really very spiffy on its own terms. Plus, K & L are joined by Peter Lorre, for an early summit-meeting feel.

zombiesonbroadway2Zombies on Broadway (Gordon Douglas, 1945). The other groaner on the Karloff/Lugosi set, this one with Bela spoofing his White Zombie role as a Caribbean zombie-maker. A cheap knockoff of an Abbott and Costello picture, starring that immortal comedy duo Wally Brown and Alan Carney, the movie is a revelation as a straightforward parody of a recent picture from the same studio, RKO’s I Walked with a Zombie. Calypso troubador Sir Lancelot and looming zombie Darby Jones both return from that film. Brown and Carney aren’t all that funny, but the movie isn’t awful, and the reliable Gordon Douglas keeps it trundling right along. Also, at one point a monkey does a zombie walk.

Five (Arch Oboler, 1951). Key post-atomic-apocalypse film, five survivors of the cataclysm, lots of pre-Rod-Serling bits of humanism and poetry. Plus a few real surprises.

Crude du Freak: The Headless Amelia (Weekly Links)


Kneel before Jaa

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

The Headless Woman. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

If you like David Lynch-land, if you like a puzzle film, if you value mystery over explanations—we’ve got a movie for you.

“The Headless Woman” is a new film from Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, whose “La Cienaga” and “The Holy Girl” marked her as a distinctive talent. This one is like a Hitchcock movie watched through a smoked glass window. At the center of the movie, and usually at the center of the shot, is Veronica (Maria Onetto), an upper-class, middle-aged woman. Something happens to her, or she causes something to happen, while driving her car, early in the film.

We watch Veronica as she drops her cell phone while motoring along a sunny road. As she fumbles for it on the seat, the car suddenly jerks up and down, and we hear a thump.

As though she’s hit something.

But the nature of this impact—and of a possible head injury Veronica might have sustained in the moment—is not going to be spelled out. Instead, we watch her pass through the remainder of the movie, her behavior odd, apparently in a kind of concussed daze. Is it possible she hit a dog in the road? But what about the human body found nearby, a few days later? Can she remember what happened, or is she conveniently turning away from reality?

Martel has suggested that her films are metaphors for a generation of Argentineans who would prefer to forget the uncomfortable political past. If so, “The Headless Woman” fits the profile: not only does Veronica struggle with remembering, but the people around her seem to be helping her forget, as though closing ranks of privilege around her.

These tantalizing ideas are embedded in a movie that has a slow, dreamy rhythm. “The Headless Woman” doesn’t make anything easy for you, and at times its style is so oblique you might wonder whether you got conked in the noggin yourself. It’s not so much a whodunit as a wha’happened. Following out the clues makes for a challenging game—you’ll have to keep your head.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. “Fails on all counts.”

Amelia. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

When she vanished somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart flew from heroine to myth. Her mysterious end turns out to be just about the only real draw to a new biopic, “Amelia.”

Hilary Swank, with her sincerity and her toothy smile, is apt casting for the Kansas-born aviatrix. But not much else feels right in this once-over-lightly account of a somewhat enigmatic life.

We begin around the time Earhart is engaged for a publicity stunt: she’ll ride along with a pilot and engineer for a transatlantic flight, becoming the first woman to fly across the ocean (albeit as a passenger, not a pilot). This 1928 episode (a year after Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across) launches Earhart as a public figure, and also begins her relationship with publisher George Putnam, played by Richard Gere.

The depiction of this flight, as well as her 1932 solo transatlantic flight, are absorbing enough in the manner of a good documentary. Those were fascinating feats–a lot of people died trying to do similar things, and Earhart’s courage was real. “Amelia” also tries to make a case for Earhart as an unconventional feminist ahead of her time, although this comes in small doses.

An affair with Eugene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) is depicted, although there’s almost no hint of why these two got together while Amelia was married; it’s as though the filmmakers were so skittish about Earhart appearing less than completely sympathetic, they simply tried to breeze through these things as quickly as possible. Vidal’s son, Gore, is included in the story, although one senses that’s only because he would someday be the famous writer. Ditto the cameo by Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones), who is around to assure us of Earhart’s celebrity.

This film is directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”), but it feels like a committee job. The overall blandness is best suited to a TV production, and at times the dialogue is woefully clumsy—even the voice of the newsreel reporter isn’t convincing.

Earhart’s final attempt at a round-the-world journey is decently staged, and its mysterious finish can’t help but intrigue. But this is mostly because of the facts of the event, not because of anything special “Amelia” has done to earn our interest. Almost any documentary account of Amelia Earhart’s life will be more engaging that this strangely unengaging movie.

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. “Jaa displays the fiendish focus of his idol, Bruce Lee.”

Crude. “Berlinger may need to return to this story.”

And don’t forget: next Thursday night brings a Rotten Halloween party, celebrating the zombie-Western comic book, complete with booze and a secret, freaked-out movie. Details here.

Movie Diary 10/22/2009

Easy to Love (Charles Walters, 1953). Maddeningly dumb storyline with Esther Williams surfing between Van Johnson and Tony Martin, featuring much of the action set in Cypress Gardens, Florida, also a location in This is Cinerama.

Million Dollar Mermaid (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952). Supposed biopic of Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, with Esther Williams (duh) in the lead role; really it fits into a pattern of nostalgia-heavy period flicks of the era, which have a female star torn between career and a roguish, unavailable man (here, Victor Mature). Some incredible and frequently excerpted production numbers in this one (Busby Berkeley had a hand in there), complete with water slides, trapeze dives, every damn thing you can think of.

Movie Diary 10/21/2009

Amelia (Mira Nair, 2009). Sometimes all the ingredients are there and it doesn’t work out for the movie; and then sometimes the ingredients aren’t even there. (full review 10/23)

Crude (Joe Berlinger, 2009). The leavings of oil companies in Ecuador, and an endless lawsuit to set things right. Hard to make this kind of thing new, but Berlinger captures some interesting behind-the-scenes material. (full review 10/23)

I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1945). Embarrassing how long it’d been since I’d watched this movie. Can’t let a lapse like that happen again. Also can’t believe I hadn’t seen the Criterion extras before, with home-movie footage of Powell’s hill-walking in Scotland and a charming documentary with the New Yorker‘s Nancy Franklin traveling to the town where exteriors were shot.