“Romeo and Juliet”: Till Death and Beyond

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Everybody knows the tale of “Romeo and Juliet” (1968). Even if you have never read a word of William Shakespeare, and even if you have but find his prose too archaic to comprehend (that would be most of us), you know it. The shared grief of a boy and a girl, who sacrifice their lives on the altar of love, set the standard for every romantic tragedy to follow. What is curious about the movie adaptation of literature created four centuries earlier is that it would be made and be a box office success in the decade of the 20th century that experienced the apex of rebellion against the past. History attests that no ten years revolutionized our advancement as citizens of the world more than those of 1960-1969. A minister’s dream of human equality upended a long-standing tradition of racial segregation. Women were no longer divided between the titles of Miss and Mrs., but united as Ms. Gays and lesbians broke through closet doors and into the light of freedom. Indeed, times were a changin’ with such velocity that men grew their hair, joined hands with those they once held subordinate, and sang in harmony against the destruction in Vietnam. Make love, not war was the motto of this era. Every man was a Romeo. Every woman was a Juliet.

“Romeo and Juliet” is loyal to cinema’s mission in that it is a mirror of the cultural and social milieu in which it was made. As unforgettable as the ultimate pact of union is that forever links Romeo (Leonard Whiting) to Juliet (Olivia Hussey), life more than death suffuses the movie. It’s gorgeous to watch. Costumes the colors of Jupiter against a Renaissance backdrop evoke the murals of Michelangelo. Juliet and her Romeo are as dewy as the moon under which they seal their devotion. Energy thrives in every scene. Dueling swords aside, we can’t believe these young Capulet and Montague rogues truly want to off each other. Both sides are at it more like rugby players fighting over a foul than like warriors. And the balcony courtship – all sighs and kisses and hugs – burns with the fire of two people hungry to be one.

But the most mesmerizing moment is the dance where Romeo and Juliet first lock eyes. This isn’t a meeting. This is a collision. We could almost visualize two chariots racing towards one another, the horses maneuvering them at full throttle. Destiny has no brakes. Neither does disaster. Who cares? It feels good to be flying against the wind, unstoppable and free.

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In this scene, Romeo sneaks into a Capulet gala. He masks his face to conceal his identity, though he fails to conceal his handsomeness. His figure is lithe. His eyes are visible. They gleam with such admiration that Juliet is beguiled. For the pair, the world stops. The only person in motion is the other. They circle the room in a merry-go-round of seduction, catching glances over people’s shoulders, through the space in a crowd. She is coy and courageous. He is determined and daring. When at last Romeo, from behind a post, grabs Juliet’s hand, we know that in this single touch, they have discovered the purpose of their existence. Time melts into Juliet. She can only stand frozen, throw her head back, and shut her eyes in awe as the past and the future converge in this one sensation. Romeo reveals his face, smiling and smitten. She studies his beauty as though she had just unearthed a holy relic.

Director Franco Zeffirelli hit the jackpot with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Whiting is just 17 in the film. Hussey is 16. They speak Shakespeare with the fluidity that we text messages. Perhaps this kind of language is inherent in the Brits. Regardless of how old the tale of “Romeo and Juliet,” Whiting and Hussey bring it to life with a youthful freshness.

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We are inclined, as a result, to believe that “Romeo and Juliet” is about the young and for the young. Not so. Let me tell you the true story of a Kentucky boy on the dawning of the Depression who dreamed of movies and movie stars. In 1928, Hal Riddle was 11 years old when he fell in love for the first time. The object of his emotional awakening was the lead actress in a film called “Adoration” (1928) – Billie Dove, a diamond-studded Howard Hughes paramour on whom, during the peak of her fame, the public stormed with 50,000 fan letters a week. The boy’s mother was not pleased as he announced his love for Dove when he came home that day. This meant he had played hokey again. He wrote Dove a fan letter, and in return, received an autographed photo. It would have ended right there, but Riddle himself wanted to be a movie star, so when he grew into a young man, he went to Hollywood. “Cinema Paradiso” (1988) could have been based on Hal Riddle. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/cinema-paradiso-the-sacrifice-behind-a-dream/)

You might recognize Riddle in the Michael Keaton film “Johnny Dangerously” (1984). He plays a prison warden. He had been working as a character actor for 40 years, but had never achieved the stardom he had yearned for back in Kentucky. “Johnny Dangerously” was his last shot. Alas, it was not meant to be. Calling it quits, Riddle later took up residence at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, a retirement home for the elderly who play a role in Hollywood’s history, whether big or small. He must have expected the rest of his life to consist of nothing more than bridge, golf, and swapping with fellow residents anecdotes about dreams that were never fulfilled. But that would not entirely be the case because it so turned out that Billie Dove was in a facility a mere five-minute walk away from his cottage.

Although Riddle might not have become a star, one dream did come true. The famous actress for whom he held a torch for nearly all his life would love him back. It didn’t matter that Dove was frail and wheelchair bound. As he confided to Entertainment Weekly: “… when I looked at her, I still saw the actress in the photo she’d sent me when I was a kid. I just saw Billie Dove. And I could see the essence of her beauty still.” And radiant she had been: black hair against white skin, curled lashes, and lips the red and succulence of a heart.

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Through age, ailment, and dashed ambition, the Romeo in Riddle had not dwindled. A bystander at the community movie theater who had overheard Riddle gush to a friend about his boyhood crush brought him and Dove together. He was 79. She was 93. He told her everything of his life, including her autographed photo that hung on his wall in every place he called home up to that moment and to the end. When Dove died on New Year’s Eve 1997, a year after she and Riddle had met, Riddle delivered her eulogy. He lived on for several years more, fueled by a passion to tell the world about his two greatest loves: movies and Billie Dove.

This is why we need stories. Stories are our history. We remember Romeo and Juliet not because of their death, but because Shakespeare immortalized them with words and Zeffirelli with images. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are thus frozen in adolescence, in the bodies of our most famous couple – both permanent reminders of what is possible in us, whether young or old. We can say the same for Hal Riddle and Billie Dove. That the two were not teens nor are familiar to all is irrelevant. Riddle’s public appearances in the wake of Dove’s passing paid off.

Their love is everlasting on the internet.

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“Blade Runner”: The Miracle of Love

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Hollywood has a penchant for envisioning the future as a wasteland of destruction. When the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, little did we know that a black cloud would loom over the imagination of every man and woman born thereafter. Fact might not be far from fiction. The Rodney King riot that erupted in Los Angeles in 1992 resulted in cobwebs of smashed glass on building fronts, flames in the night, and fallen supermarket merchandise from toilet paper to ketchup turning aisle floors into a rocky terrain. Soldiers in black helmets patrolled the streets, their batons raised in attack formation. Citizens of every ethnicity tore at each other like beasts in the wilderness. For a week, Los Angeles spun off its axis. “Blade Runner” (1982) predicts this bedlam, only the Los Angeles of “Blade Runner” is set in 2019. The city’s demise started 27 years too soon. With nuclear arms on the rise in regions across the globe from North Korea to Israel, and with terrorists annihilating civilizations, the rest of the world in the second millennium is just as doomed.

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If Armageddon is the only factor that unites humanity, we wonder why the laws that protect us from theft, murder, and civil violations of all sorts that rob us of our right to be. No sense in waiting for a bomb to do to us what we’re able to do to each other. It’s with this cynicism that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) wears a frown. He’s a Blade Runner, a government assassin whose target is Replicants, the term for androids in this dystopian microcosm. Humans created Replicants. The master engineer is a scientist named Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel). Their purpose is to work as slave labor in the construction of colonies on other planets, where our species is to flourish onward once the world ends. Molded after our image, Replicants deviate from us in two respects – the capacity for emotion and longevity. Their life span is four years.

As is the case with the oppressed, the Replicants have mutinied, marking them as criminals to be terminated. Four of them have managed to return to earth to seek more life from their maker. Although not as lethal as the A-bomb, they are lethal even so. In their desire for a prolonged existence, they kill in a process that involves the crushing of the skull and the gauging of the eyes. This because Replicants resent us humans for possessing a brain layered with memories that trigger emotions expressed through the one part of our body that speaks when words fail us.

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Deckard himself is a man of few words, a futuristic version of the frontiersman of yore in the vein of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Like all silent types on a mission for justice, he faces his greatest challenge in an affair that involves the heart – a Replicant named Rachael (Sean Young). While Deckard has no qualms about killing the others, Rachael is different. She is not part of the band of renegades. She is an experiment implanted with memories and who goes AWOL from Dr. Tyrell. Rachael also happens to be statuesque with lips as red and lush as cherry, luminous skin, and hair the black of black onyx styled in retro-1940s bouffant – a cross between Betty Grable and Wonder Woman. Aside from being drop dead gorgeous, the tricky thing about Rachael is that she doesn’t know she is a Replicant.

“I dreamed music,” Deckard tells Rachael in one pivotal scene. She says, “I didn’t know if I could play. I remember lessons. I don’t know if it’s me or Tyrell’s niece.” Rachael’s doubt notwithstanding, Deckard only sees her. “You play beautifully,” he says. They are sitting at a piano in his place. A moment earlier, she saved him from death by shooting a Replicant who was about to empty his skull sockets. She knows now that she is not human, that her memories could be those of another; Deckard told her the truth of herself. Thus, she is on the lam, has nobody to turn to except Deckard. She asks him if he would hunt her down if she were to disappear north, wherever north may be. He tells her no. He tells her he owes her. As he lies in repose exhausted from a day that could have been his last, he falls asleep then awakes to the gentle tap of the piano keyboard. Here they are, man and woman, side by side, two loners connected in chaos. Deckard brings his face close to hers. She runs, but opens the front door only partially when Deckard slams it shut, pushes her back into the living room, where he demands one thing of her unique among living creatures as proof of the possession of a soul: “Say kiss me.”

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That Rachael falls under Deckard’s spell is no shock. The shock is in Roy (Rutger Hauer), the leader of the Replicant deserters. He is Deckard’s last target. In a fight to the finish, they smash walls, break fingers, and leap building tops. Roy is the victor. As Deckard shrivels against a post in surrender of his fate, the world is drab and wet from a cloudburst. But rather than meeting his own maker – whether his maker be God or science or some omnipotent force that orchestrates the law of evolution – Deckard confronts a distraught foe. Roy sits before Deckard like a sage opening the gate to knowledge, his eyes not murderous but sad, and with Dr. Tyrell having denied him more years, he recites his own obituary: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Why, Deckard wonders, why is this most deadly of Replicants allowing him the blessing of what he so direly wants for himself? Perhaps Roy isn’t a monster after all, for although memories may not have been implanted in Roy, the memories he did acquire from the day of his inception were rich enough to stir in him the very human feelings of loss and mourning.

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And so Roy dies, Deckard lives, and Rachael runs north. Our hero stays loyal to his oath. He doesn’t follow Rachael. He goes with her. In this most dichotomous of pairings, we understand as “Blade Runner” comes to an end that Armageddon is not what unites humanity. It is the fight for survival. For all our technological advancements and quest for immortality, the warmth of another’s touch is what sustains us, and the sensation of completeness upon witnessing a light enliven a heart as the person whose eyes we are looking into sees us in return as dear and indispensable.

Love has the power to build pyramids, palaces, and civilizations. Love can compel a king to relinquish the throne and drive a queen to end her heartache with a serpent’s venom. Love is the thread that joins every era through the infinite course of history, from the biblical past to the space age present and beyond into the apocalyptic future.

Love is the miracle that turns an android into a human being.

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“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: Innocence Immortalized in Rainbow Colors

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Had Matisse been God, he would have created the world of Cherbourg. Rainbow colors burnish the screen with the dewy freshness of paint on a palette. Snow flakes flurry to the ground like raining chips of porcelain china. Buildings possess the geometric precision of cut-out figures in a pop-up book. Add to the mix the music of Michel Legrand and a 20-year-old actress by the name of Catherine Deneuve in her first starring role, and what you have in “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) is a piece of French cinema destined to be a winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

Deneuve is Genevieve, a provincial girl in the throes of first love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a mechanic whose ambition is to own a gas station. They stroll on the streets of Cherbourg, sharing thoughts of getting married and having a child, which they will name Francois should it be a boy or Francoise should it be a girl. So sure are they of the future their devotion promises that everything in their midst, be it a house door or Genevieve’s dress, is as delectable as icing on a wedding cake. Conflicts arise, as they always do for young lovers. Genevieve’s mother (Anne Vernon) does not approve of Guy, and Guy receives a draft notice. It is the era of the Algiers War. This proves to be the perfect reason to implement a dramatic device indispensable to some of cinema’s most epic romances, starting with every film adaptation of “Anna Karenina” to “Sunflower” (1970) to “Before Sunrise” (1995) – a train station farewell.

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Not a single misstep happens in this scene. On the contrary, it is prolonged to maximum effect. Genevieve and Guy sing their duet amid hugs and tears and kisses in the station café. The duet is so sensitively rendered (by voiceovers) that it is remembered to this day as one of Legrand’s best:

If it takes forever, I will wait for you. For a thousand summers, I will wait for you. Till you’re back beside me, till I’m holding you, till I hear you sigh here in my arms.

As Genevieve waves adieu to Guy’s departing train, it is raining. She grows ever so small in the distance until exhaust fumes envelop her in a fog.

Cherbourg has lost its sheen.

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Genevieve is left not only crestfallen, but also pregnant. She tells her mother that she will kill herself, which generates a balk and the line that a love suicide only happens in the movies. So Genevieve goes on to marry, not Guy but a traveling jeweler by the name of Roland (Marc Michel), who assures her comfort in Paris and a father to her child. Upstanding character that he is, Roland does not rescind on his word. Guy returns, and though he goes through a period of dejection over the loss of Genevieve, he finds another woman to love in the form of Madeleine (Ellen Farner), the caregiver to his ailing aunt (Mireille Perrey). This is not entirely a surprise. From the start, we sense that Madeleine will play a crucial role in our hero’s life or else she would not have been so pretty.

Every man is handsome. Every woman is beautiful. Neither villain nor villainess exists. Everybody ends up happy. Cherbourg regains its sheen. Yet “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is a tragedy all the same because the undying love between Genevieve and Guy on which the film stands fails to be an enduring foundation after all. Despite the oath of till death do us part, the begging to stay, and the declaration of life as worthless without each other, Genevieve and Guy are able to put their love to rest.

From a practical perspective, this is a healthy depiction of first love. No Romeo and Juliet are Guy and Genevieve nor, hopefully, are all young lovers in real life. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) Nonetheless, we cannot deny its sadness.

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For me, however, this was the beginning of my love affair with Catherine Deneuve. I am not alone here. Such is the world’s shared fascination with her that in the five decades since the premier of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” her oeuvre has made for popular screenings in art theaters. On top of that, her current works merit an American release. Even in black and white, Deneuve glows. Case in point is her second film, “Repulsion” (1965), which reveals a drastic departure from the role of a pristine young woman. It is also as dark as a film could be, both visually and content-wise. Deneuve plays a schizophrenic whose hallucinations of sexual abuse lead her to murder. As erotically charged as “Repulsion” is, Deneuve does something that is a testament to her early flourishing as a great actress; she escapes being tawdry on account of her ability to imbue her character with psychological and emotional depth.

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Directors from Luis Bunuel to Francois Truffaut would seize upon this talent for the first half of Deneuve’s career, establishing her persona as a snow capped volcano. No other blonde beauty in the world could have conveyed both aloofness and debasement as the bored wife of a Ken doll in “Belle de Jour” (1967), one who gets her kicks by moonlighting as a whore to thugs marred with the hideous looks of a James Bond villain. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/on-her-majestys-secret-service-redemption-in-time/) In “The Last Metro” (1981), Deneuve is a fusion of regality and sexuality as the inaccessible wife of a Jewish theater owner during Nazi occupied Paris whose passion flares when she succumbs to her attraction to an actor.

Deneuve is now in her seventies. Her star is far from faded. She remains not only a fine actress, but also a beautiful woman. The secret to her longevity is not complex; she accepts her age. In one of her latest films, “On My Way” (2013), she plays Bettie, a former beauty queen on a road trip with her grandson that leads to an older person’s revelations of regrets and a desire to make amends. During one night of drinking, a young man picks her up. The next day, as sunlight bursts through the window and reveals how a woman of a certain age can look the morning after, the man says, “Wow. You must have been really beautiful when you were young. A real stunner.” For an actress to embody the role of a head turner whose looks have waned takes guts. Name any actress of Deneuve’s generation – Jane Fonda, Sophia Loren, Ann-Margret – and it is unlikely you would ever see them in a vulnerable confrontation with reality filmed for posterity.

Someday, Catherine Deneuve will no longer be. Such is the passing of the seasons, the way of life. Not to despair. We are all aware of this; hence, our duty to create art. Granted the immortality of Deneuve’s films, tomorrow’s viewers can regale in her first foray onto the world stage: in a small town called Cherbourg, as a lass named Genevieve in love with a bumpkin named Guy, joined hand in hand in lighting the universe with the incandescence of youth.

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“Grease”: A Celebration of Adolescence

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“Grease” (1978), the movie, will live forever. It’s been nearly 40 years since it premiered, and “Grease” sing-a-longs across America are as much of an event as Halloween, complete with character look-alike contests and a bag of accoutrements to be brandished at certain scenes. Light wands sway in the dark like candle flames in lament of Danny (John Travolta), stranded at the drive-in, as he bears his heartbreak in song over Sandy (Olivia Newton-John). Blow bubbles are for Frenchy (Didi Conn), bubbly beauty school drop-out that she is, during her visitation from Teen Angel (Frankie Avalon). You’ve got a pair of sunglasses, as well, because “Grease” is a sunny frolic of friendship and love with never a raindrop in the horizon. I’ve experienced the fun at the Castro Theater, the perfect venue given its history. Constructed in 1922, the San Francisco theater has a viewing room that boasts murals of Greek colonnades and a chandelier molded after a colossal lotus. Although “Grease” may not be as old as the Castro Theater, the movie shares its status as a historical landmark.

The magic of “Grease” is that it is not a deep film. Music erupts at the moment an inkling of seriousness threatens the lightness. When a group of girls scorn Rizzo (Stockard Channing) for getting knocked up, she doesn’t cry but sings instead that nobody shall ever witness any tears, and Sandy, in her pureness and innocence, can only express the pain of yearning in melody. In happy moments, of which exists a plethora, a song isn’t enough. These teens need to break out in a dance of high jumps and twirling limbs in the gymnasium, on the football bleachers, atop a car painted with lightning bolts, everywhere, anywhere. Both the cast and the crew must really have been immersed in merriment for the camera to have transmitted all that joy with such palpability. They so acutely capture the frivolity of adolescence that you can overlook the discrepancy in age between the actors and actual high schoolers. More importantly, they did something that spoke to the subconscious of viewers back then and that would continue to do so to that of generations after; they made every single character in “Grease” cool, from nerdy Eugene (Eddie Deezen) to stuffy Principal McGee (Eve Arden).

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Indeed, coolness is the magic ingredient to the film’s immortality. Every teenager deserves the right to be cool, to be included in some group or other. The friends made in high school form the first tribe outside of family. You share the same taste in music, clothes, and books. You talk about sex and disclose your crushes. You approve of each other in a way your parents don’t. Time and maturity will generate a rift, but the bond will never quite be broken because the seed of acceptance planted back then has instilled a sureness of self that will flourish with age. You’re a comic geek, not a jock or a brain or a beauty queen, and that’s okay. You’ll never be alone. The world is full of comic geeks, so much so that a Comic-Con convention is held annually in San Diego. Besides, cliques are as transient as the latest hair trend, and the bravado with which the ordained gods and goddesses of high school strut the corridors is as slippery as grease. Danny can’t shoot a ball into a hoop. Sandy’s all-American boy toy (Lorenzo Lamas) can’t carry a conversation. Rizzo disparages herself when it comes to love. Everybody has got an issue.

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As a result, high school becomes a battle field on which you bear arms against your insecurities, the most prevalent among your peers being body issues that a number of conditions ranging from premature balding to fatness propel. (Mine was acne and a lack in height.) You’re called names. Your locker is vandalized. Nevertheless, you survive, as you should. In retrospect, you realize that puberty was a necessary rite of passage, one that actually had moments of laughter and belonging, and you find that you have emerged a stronger person on account of it. Look at how happy the graduating class of “Grease” ends up. Rizzo’s pregnancy scare is just that – a scare. Kenickie (Jeff Conway) gets to keep his girl without the burden of fatherhood. Sandy blossoms into a fox. Danny takes Sandy for a ride on his fancy set of wheels to the sky. Who knows what our hero and heroine are going to do up there? Probably lose their virginity in a union of heavenly bliss.

Heed to the message of “Grease.” Forget the isolation, fights with your parents, and bullying. Remember instead the mischievous pranks, the bitter sweetness of first love, and friendship. Especially the friendship. The mystery of adolescence happens only once, in all its ecstasy and damnation, which is why “Grease 2″ (1982) was a flop.

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Woody Allen: The Unlikely Romantic

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Mrs. Roney was my journalism teacher at the International School Manila. Blonde and big-boned, she was always in a dress (I remember her wardrobe exclusively as blue), and at times she wore her hair in pigtails so that she resembled a 30-something Nelly Olson. In addition to edifying us that the first paragraph of a news article must contain the five W’s and single H (who, what, when, where, why, and how), Mrs. Roney regaled the class on intrigues within the high courts of the international media. One day she held up an issue of Newsweek that featured a cover image of a soldier in the Lebanon War cradling a gun, an image, she claimed, that her photographer friend had taken but that was credited to somebody else. Another day, she stopped in the middle of a lecture on the Columbia Broadcasting System and asked me to repeat everything she had just said since I was engaged in a one-sided conversation with the person seated in front of me rather than focused on her. I said whatever it is I said, at which she responded, “Well, Rafaelito, I wish I had your talent of talking to one person and listening to another at the same time.” Mrs. Roney was absorbing with a touch of austerity as well as a fair listener, just as a teacher should be. The one time the woman in her surfaced was when she declared to the class, all aswoon with eyes bright, “Woody Allen is the sexiest man alive.”

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I don’t know why that comment, but there it was. My reaction was exactly as yours: huh? Woody Allen is funny, I’ll give him that. He assures us with bawdiness in “Bananas” (1971) that sucking out the poison from a snake bite may be more pleasurable than clinical, depending on who is bitten and in what part of the anatomy. He makes hooking up at an art gallery in “Play It Again, Sam” (1972) a comedic moment. In “Annie Hall” (1977), he generates laughter when his thoughts for Annie at their first meeting are not in sync with his words. But Allen as sexy? Rob Lowe, maybe. Val Kilmer, yes. Richard Gere, definitely. If the word sexy in association with Allen was something I was meant to grow into, the stage bypassed me in light of the biggest Hollywood scandal that would usher in the next decade – the auteur’s affair with girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.

It is alarming to what degree one action which unites the world in reprobation can denigrate an individual. Never mind the Best Film and Best Director Oscars for “Annie Hall” or the accolades of genius. My opinion of Allen went from funny to disturbing. Revelations of Soon-Yi Previn, 35 years his junior, in nudie photos for his pleasure screamed creep, and tabloid shots of a bespectacled hunched man with receding hair and the nose of a proboscis monkey as romantic squire to an Asian girl barely out of her teens could have been lifted from an FBI file on sexual predators in the Far East. People were not just making fun of the way Allen looked, but also for his being a pervert. I would have expected a televised defense from Allen, such as what Princess Diana did in justifying her divorce. No. He was silent throughout. His retaliation tactic instead was films, films, and more films – “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993), “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994), “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995) – and more Oscar recognition. No matter what my opinion of him as a person, I couldn’t resist. I no longer rented his films. I went to the theater to see every one of them. Scandal of scandals: I will never find Woody Allen sexy, but I discovered that I am one big fan.

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My fandom for Allen is more than about laughter. It is about the theme that remains constant in his dearest outputs through the changing political climate, from “Manhattan” (1979) to “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) to “Midnight in Paris” (2011) – the burgeoning of love with the most unlikely of persons, whether that person is a coke sniveling date from hell or the sales attendant to an antique store along the Seine. Even when the hero or heroine ends up alone, a glimmer of hope still shines. Nothing ever fades in a Woody Allen romance.

Take the Allen film that most resonates with me, “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985). Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a Depression Era wife whose sole escape from her dismal life as a diner waitress married to an oaf of a drinker is the theater. Night after night, she sees the same film until something only possible in movies occurs; the hero she is enamored with (Jeff Daniels) jumps out of the screen and into her life. They dance. He professes his love. Her husband (Danny Aiello) fights him. Being a figure from a movie, he moves with suave and he survives a punch with hair in place and suit unruffled. Word gets to Hollywood about this two-dimensional entity that has come to life and is running amuck with a waitress. The actor who portrays him is ordered to coerce his character back to the silver screen. He succeeds, albeit at the expense of seducing Cecilia and promising her paradise in Hollywood. As reality would have it, he rescinds on his promise, leaving her waiting in front of the theater- a place as forlorn as a brick jailhouse – there where dreams are meant to be contained.

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As the creator of “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” Allen could have had Cecilia live happily ever after. But that would not have been a fair depiction of a woman’s plight in the 1930s or of anybody else’s in any epoch. What to do? Cecilia can’t go back to the husband she had finally had the guts to tell off and walk out on. Not yet. Bereft, suitcase in tow, she spends what little money she has left on the latest feature. The theater is practically empty. It always is. This is her home. Just when Cecilia is about to cry, the screen lights her face and her despair disappears. Fred and Ginger are towering 15 feet in front of her – he in tuxedo, she in shimmering gown of feathered fringes – cheek to cheek and both twirling on their feet as if on a cloud. Never mind that in truth they are in a sound stage with plywood partitions and lights hanging from a rafter beam. So silver is their sheen that they might as well be dancing in the evening glow.

Therein lies the message of a Woody Allen film: as the world around us falls asunder, we can rely on one thing to keep us afloat. Behold the magic of moonlight, music, and movies.

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“Casablanca”: From Mess to Masterpiece

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“Casablanca” (1942) is a movie that during its production was saddled with a recipe for disaster. Two different versions of the ending were shot because nobody had a clue where the story was going. The script changed on a daily basis, rendering useless hours of memorizing lines and internalizing characters, each of whose essence was altered upon the omission of one scene and the inclusion of another. More vexing was that the onscreen chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman was non-existent once the camera stopped rolling. As Bergman’s eldest daughter, Pia Lindstrom, put it, “They weren’t even sympatico.” All this is no news. The mess that was “Casablanca” in the making is ingrained in Hollywood folklore, and the masterpiece that emerged from this mess has cast a spell so far reaching that through the decades “Casablanca” has become as integral to our collective psyche as the Rock of Gibraltar is to the earth. It is unlikely the spell will ever break as time goes by.

This raises a conundrum: how then is a classic created? As evidenced by “Casablanca,” one would be hard pressed to say that passion and love for a project lead to something wonderful. Neither Warner Brothers nor anybody else involved with “Casablanca” from the writers to the director had expectations of the film. It was considered another commonplace piece of entertainment Hollywood churned out yearly on an industry line basis, packaged for mass consumption and then meant to be disposed of and forgotten. During breaks, Bergman would retreat to her quarter in anticipation of a call informing her that she got the lead to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943). That was where the glory for her was at, and certainly the rest of the crew was yearning for this fiasco to be done with so that everyone could move on to the real deal. Yet day after day, the writers wrote away, the actors adapted to on-the-minute changes, and director Michael Curtiz remained focused on a vision. Confusion and frustrations notwithstanding, no accounts of Bogart and Bergman exist of either one as having been a slacker. Everybody was there to do a job and do it everybody did, to the end.

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And that, perhaps, is a how a classic is created; people do their best under the circumstance and excel as a result. It’s like a love affair, really. When passion hits a roadblock, you stay committed. You learn to see your partner as a person, not as a projection of your lofty ideal, and together you work towards a life with a house free of plumbing issues, turkey on Thanksgiving, and vacations to faraway lands for a spicy dab of adventure. You do not expect perfection. You expect instead occasional disagreements and temper outbursts. You expect flight cancellations, defective orders from amazon, and spoiled sushi. You expect reality. If the affair ends, then it ends with memories of both of you as having once made something beautiful, discordances included.

Consider other creations hailed as great or a classic or a masterpiece or whatever other superlatives critics and historians bestow upon such creations indicative of seemingly superhuman talent. Margaret Mitchell confided to friends that she would be happy if “Gone with the Wind” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/) sold a hundred copies. Leonard Bernstein took a gamble with “West Side Story,” a musical so raw in its depiction of such social issues as gang rivalry and juvenile delinquency that it was feared too downbeat for Broadway. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/west-side-story-devotion-in-death/) Alfred Hitchcock’s “Pyscho” (1960) is a product of relentless editing. Of course, these examples differ from “Casablanca” in that their creators started out loving what they were doing. But you see what I’m getting at. Love wasn’t enough. For that love to be visible to the world, it took work, work, and more work, work absent of delusions of grandeur, work steeped in the hard facts of diligence, trial and error, disappointment, and perseverance. In the case of “Casablanca,” the work behind it produced a movie the American Film Institute ranked at the end of the century as third on a list of 100 of the greatest films of all time made in English. (“Citizen Kane” (1941) ranks number one and “The Godfather” (1972) takes second place.)

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“Casablanca” tells the story of a love triangle that unfolds in the midst of World War II. That is all. Scarcely a sub-plot exists or even psychological complexity. It’s a safe film for marketing purposes since a romance in a time of strife offers plenty of conflict and excitement. However, it is the message that this particular romance imparts that has elevated “Casablanca” from light entertainment to a drama of deep philosophizing. I can think of no other scene in any film that conveys such life changing thoughts with total ease than in Rick’s final goodbye to Ilsa before she boards the plane to be with the husband (Paul Henreid) she planned on abandoning. Rick holds her on the chin, raises her face to his, and gazing for the last time into those eyes that glisten with tears and star light, he says one of the most famous lines of the 20th century: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Rick is right. Jews are being incinerated in crematoriums. The Japanese Imperial Army has mobilized Filipino and American prisoners of war for a death march across the Philippine island of Bataan. Bombs are decimating cities in half the globe. Who cares about the misery of two men in love with the same woman?

Who cares about this blog? About my high aspirations of literary recognition? About my thoughts and feelings? Maybe nobody. Still, we all have our lives to live on this one planet that bears the fruit of human existence, and we need films like “Casablanca” because they remind us that in this crazy world, love is the noblest cause worth fighting for. I could disappear into a crowd of seven billion people, doing whatever it is everybody else does and probably be good at it and even content, or – like Bogart and Bergman and Curtiz, like Mitchell and Bernstein and Hitchcock – I could keep pounding away on what I love and am gifted at for a brush with greatness.

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