Fun With Memory Loss

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last night I watched Seven Men From Now, a 1956 western with Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher. (I had to look up the year and the spelling of Boetticher’s name in Wikipedia.) It’s a movie I had seen recently. My memory told me it was a few months ago, but it was July of 2012. (I had to check my Amazon Orders history to find out when I bought the DVD.) Last night I started watching the show from a recent DVR over-the-air broadcast recording, before switching to my DVD copy. I was surprise by how little I remembered. In fact, before I watched the film again last night I could not have written down anything about the plot, other that what the title triggered in my memory—Randolph Scott is out to kill seven guys. I didn’t even remember it was revenge for them killing his wife. I’m sure I’ve seen this film other times, but my memory completely fails me. I’ve been addicted to westerns since the 1950s, and every few years I binge on as many 1940s and 1950s westerns I can find.

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I’ve been paying attention to how well my short term and long term memory works. I don’t recall hearing the phrase mid term memory, but it feels like I should have that kind of memory too. I know my short term memory is failing because it’s very difficult for me to keep running scores in games, or remember which exercises I’ve done in my morning physical therapy exercises. Obviously, my failure to remember anything from a movie I watched three years ago says something about my long term memory.

What I want to do is write down a list of scenes I remember from last night, and then in a month, make another list of scenes I remember. Then do it again in a year. I’ll have to either update this essay every time I retest, or republish it as new. I’ll leave the DVD somewhere to trigger my memory in a month.

This morning I’m surprised by how much of the film has stuck with me overnight. One reason might be because I was comparing the video quality of the broadcast version against my DVD copy. And throughout the film I consciously admired the scenery.

  1. Opens with Randolph Scott walking in the rain at night in what looks like a desert near a rocky outcrop. He’s wearing a grey slicker. 
  2. Scott goes into a cave and sees two men sitting by a fire drinking coffee. They invite him in. Scott tells him his horse was stolen and eaten by Indians.
  3. Several short scenes of them talking about a killing in a nearby town.
  4. Camera jumps to outside the cave where we hear two shots.
  5. Daylight scene of Scott riding a reddish horse with blond mane and holding a line pulling a second horse.
  6. Several scenes of Scott riding across rocky territory and desert. Then he stops because he hears something.
  7. Scott rides over a ridge to see man and woman struggling with wagon and two horses stuck in a muddy pool of water. 
  8. Close up of man and wife, woman falls face first into mud.
  9. Scott rides up but doesn’t say much. Man asks for help. Scott gets off horse and prepares to help without saying anything still.
  10. Man asks if Scott could drive the team. Scott curtly tells him to drive it himself and hooks up his two horses to the team with ropes. They pull the wagon out of the mud hole.
  11. The man and women express their appreciation and ask Scott to come with them. The man is overly talkative, and openly admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Scott says he’s heading south. Man says they are heading south.
  12. Several scenes of them crossing various kinds of country.
  13. Scott stops them when he sees cloud of dust in distance. Tells man to get his gun.
  14. A troop of Calvary soldiers ride up and warns them to turn back. The wagon man says he won’t. They continue.
  15. Scenes of them traveling across more kinds of country, including sandy desert.
  16. They reach an abandon stage station. Scott goes in by himself for closer look and finds an old prospector stealing all the booze. Bottles are stuffed inside his shirt, he clutches others, and bottles stick out of the packs on his mule. He warns Scott to get out of the territory because of the Indians. He’s hurrying off as they talk. 
  17. Old man leaves and the wagon couple ride up just as two cowboys ride up from another direction. One is Lee Marvin and he knows Scott and calls him Sheriff. Can’t remember the other guys name, either character or actor, but he looks sort of like Aldo Ray. 
  18. Scott tells wagon couple what to do as the other two men unsaddle their horses.
  19. Scene switches to dinner inside the station. Marvin is flirting with the woman and insulting the husband. Lots of tension. Scott stays outside. Marvin tells couple that Scott is chasing men who killed his wife in a Wells Fargo holdup.
  20. Scene switches to wife taking coffee out to Scott and tries to get him to talk about his wife. He won’t.
  21. Next morning as they get ready to leave they are scared by band of Indians just appearing next to station house. Scott settles the situation by giving them his second horse, which he knows they want to eat. Indians ride off. 
  22. All five people head out. Again traveling across different terrain. Beautiful fall tree leaves near river beds, dry and sandy in desert stretches, totally rocky near canyon walls.
  23. They come across signs of Indian attack. Then see a man running on foot from Indians. Lee and Scott ride off to rescue him, killing several Indians. When Scott goes to get the man’s horse who was on foot, that man tries to shoot Scott in back but Lee Marvin shoots him in the back. It seems that was number three of seven.
  24. They next stop near a river to water horses and wife does laundry which she hangs out on line. Scott helps her. Lee Marvin tells them they are wasting their time because a storm is coming up. 
  25. Several scenes of traveling and camping. Marvin tells Scott he knows the seven men who stole the Wells Fargo shipment of $20,000, but he and his buddy aren’t part of that group. He’s going to tag long while Scott tracks them down and then take the money, and informs Scott he will kill him if he gets in the way. Scott doesn’t say anything.
  26. Other scenes of traveling, eventually stopping to camp in the rain.  Marvin goes inside wagon for coffee and continues insulting the husband and flirting with the wife. The husband is obviously a coward, and the woman defends him. She also seems to be developing a thing for Scott. Oddly, lots of rain in this desert country just north of Mexico.
  27. Finally Scott runs off Marvin and his buddy for causing trouble.
  28. Sexy scene of Scott bedding down under wagon while it’s raining, and we see wife in her slip in the wagon going to bed. They talk to each other through the floor boards. 
  29. Marvin and buddy head into the town which is the wagon’s destination, and meet up with the last four of the killers. Marvin tells them Scott is coming. They say they are waiting for a wagon. Marvin and buddy realize they’ve been riding with the $20,000 all the time.
  30. The leader of the four send two of his men out to ambush Scott.
  31. Scott leaves the couple to ride into town. Gail Russell tries to kiss him goodbye. We don’t know if she was aiming for his lips or his cheeks because he turns away. 
  32. Several scenes of two riders preparing an ambush and Scott killing them. Scott gets shot in the leg. His horse runs off. He tries to catch one of the killer’s horse, and it drags him along, bashing his head into a rock.
  33. Wagon shows up, finds the unconscious Scott. The couple nurse him and husband tells wife he has what the killer wants. Scott overhears as the husband confesses he’s carrying the strongbox to the town for $500. Scott confronts him and man tells Scott that he didn’t know about the killing. Scott has him throw down the strongbox in the middle of a small canyon and tells the couple there’s a cut-off for California just before getting into town. They leave. Scott waits.
  34. The husband decides he must go into town to tell the sheriff that Scott is in the desert waiting for the last two killers.
  35. The couple arrive in town just as the two killers and Marvin and his buddy are saddling up to go look for the wagon. Husband tells killers Scott took the strongbox and is waiting for them. They go to leave, but the leader of the gang sees the husband is heading towards sheriff’s office and shoots him in the back. Marvin comes over to look at the dead body and tells his buddy that the husband wasn’t a coward after all, knowing the wife holding his body hears. 
  36. The two killers head into the canyon and circle round from two sides. Scott kills one. Marvin and his buddy sneak in and catch the leader alone and kill him. Then Marvin kills his buddy.
  37. Marvin then walks out to middle of canyon and stands near the strong box.
  38. Scott comes out. They talk. Marvin tells Scott to walk away. They have a shoot-out and Scott kills Marvin before he can even pull his guns.
  39. Scene cuts to town and Scott is in clean clothes, but still limping, directing a wagon of Wells Fargo men loading the strongbox.
  40. Wife comes out of hotel all dressed up and gets ready to go on the stage.
  41. Scott tells her he’s going back to his town and he’d see her around. He leaves.
  42. Wife tells stage driver to unload her bags because she isn’t going to California.
  43. The end

Damn, I’m absolutely amazed that I remember this much. I can roughly visualize the scenes I describe. I remember details like Marvin’s long green scarf around his neck, and bright yellow scarf around soldier’s neck. Gail Russell, who I remembered as Gail Davis until I got the poster above has dark hair and is very beautiful. She played the Quaker girl in Angel and the Badman when she was ten years younger. In Seven Men From Now she is described as 25, but you can tell she’s not. I remember her dresses and how tight they were in the waist and chest. They are 1950s fashion of the old west. Everyone in this film was too clean and their clothes too new.

I could probably write down hundreds of details right now. The colors in this film were extremely vivid, especially the fall tree foliage along the riverbeds. I also remember the colors and patterns of the horses. And I remember the coffee pot and tin cups in the early scenes and wondered if they were the same pot and cups in the station and those at the camping in the rain scene.

How much will I remember in a month, or three months, or next year? I know most of it will disappear. This web site, which ironically I named “Auxiliary Memory” will have these details for me to recall later, outperforming my wetware. Eventually, I will write down a new list of scenes remembered before I look at them again, to compare how much I remember and forget.

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People who regularly read my blog must realize I’m becoming rather obsessed with my memory. I’m learning I must take care of my memory like I’m taking care of my general health, my back, teeth and other parts of me that are starting to wear out. Youth and vitality lets us ignore how our mind and body work. I figure the older I get, the more I’ll have to consciously study at keeping things going.

We have memory loss at all times in our life. Maybe it’s a little more scary when we get older because it happens more, but how much more? The night before I watched Pickup on South Street, a gritty film noir from 1953 about a pickpocket accidently stealing microfilm from commie spies in New York City. I don’t think I can remember it like I did the western above, since two days causes a fair amount of memory erosion. However, I might remember fifty to seven-five percent of what I remembered from last night’s flick. It was a gripping film, with lots of good emotional tension. Richard Widmark was amazing as a cold, calculating hustler. It was so riveting I stayed up well past my bedtime.

Our brains are somewhat like hard drives—they fill up. Unless there’s some kind of metaphysical networking to mystical cloud storage, we have limited space in our brains. Obviously, forgetting is essential. Imagine if we were robots that had to consciously decide what to erase each day. Lucky for us that chore is handled by our unconscious minds, yet it is amusing to consciously observe how pieces of ourselves disappear.

My fantasy analogy for getting older is to visualize a B-17 flying back to England that’s been all shot up over Germany in WWII. Aging is like the plane slowly coming apart over the English channel as more gauges and controls fail. We’re still flying, but we’re coming apart in the sky, losing altitude. We do what we can to keep flying, and as we run out of fuel, we even toss equipment out the hatch to save weight and gain a little height. We always know we’ll crash into the Cliffs of Dover, but we keep flying anyway.

I like to imagine myself as the pilot of that plane, doing everything I can to keep flying, but still laughing at the absurd existential situation I’m in.

JWH

An Insult to Ordinary Guys and Gals

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hollywood should be given great credit for promoting liberal causes, but all too often it fails at teaching social acceptance for the ordinary. I’m proud that Hollywood has enlightened Americans to empathize with minorities and LGBT folks, but if you pay attention, the movie industry maintains the status quo for a lot of other prejudices. The new film I’ll See You In My Dreams is a great example. It’s filled with accepted stereotypes and prejudices, yet it earns a  94% at Rotten Tomatoes.  Now, I’m not just picking on Hollywood or this particular film, because the prejudices they reveal are the ones we embrace.

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Hollywood is very prejudice against ordinary looking folks, and maintains a bias for exceptional beauty and sex appeal. In other words, all the stunning alpha males and females get to fall in love and have sex, and all us plain folk get to be sidekicks and the butt of jokes.

Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott are two beautiful people that fall in love because they inspire chemistry and the other characters don’t. Danner plays Carol Peterson, a widow, who has ignored men for twenty years, even though her fashion shouts, “Look at me!” It boggles the mind that Carol wouldn’t have noticed an appealing male in all that time, because she would have had thousands of guys hitting on her. Then Carol sees Bill, played by Elliott, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. How inspiring is that? This is Hollywood endorsing the stereotype that only the most beautiful are acceptable. Sure, it is realistic as Darwin, but all us omega male and females should protest.

Don’t read any further if you don’t want to read spoilers.

Carol and her friends sneer at the regular guys they meet at speed dating. Average guys are portrayed as pathetic and gross, but I identified with every one those speed dating dudes. The audience laughs at them. And the audience laughs at Rhea Perlman as Sally, for her honest horniness and aggressive humor, at Mary Kay Place as pretty Rona who envies Carol, and pudgy Georgina played by June Squibb for being uptight and timid. Everyone in this movie is white and bland as Wonder Bread. The rat and the pool boy offer the only bit of spice in the story, but the rat is even too pretty to be a roof rat and the pool boy looks like he should model for Geek Squad ads.

The point I’m trying to make is Blythe Danner meets Sam Elliott and they are the only ones who fuck. Everyone else is on the sexual sidelines. Are ordinary people only meant to be spectators of beautiful people and their antics? It would help if Carol and Bill were interesting, but they’re actually boring. The writers gave the actors nothing to work with except a big cigar and turned up collars. Carol has literally been sitting around her house for two decades, apparently not doing much more than feeding her dog, having her pool cleaned and taking clothes to the cleaners. Sam Elliott prefers to sit in his yacht alone and not smoke the cigar he constantly clamps in his mouth. Carol sings, but that’s a lame trait tacked on by writers to give her characterization, but it doesn’t work, because Bill never hears her. And did the writers have to be so lazy as have Carol go goo-goo for a rich guy?

I sorely wished this film had been more daring. What if the Bill character had been played by Wallace Shawn? Elliott and Shawn are about the same age. Could the writers have developed a Wallace Shawn Bill in such as way that he would have been fascinating to Carol Peterson? Besides her good looks, Carol doesn’t have much appeal, so why does Bill single her out as special? Just because of her looks? It’s implied, but never demonstrated, that Bill’s a savvy and sophisticated guy. He would have had hordes of dynamic women throwing themselves at him, so why did he pick a lonely lump of a woman who has been doing nothing for twenty years? I found that hard to believe. If he had just been playing her as one of many, that would have been more believable and interesting.

I hate when writers expect us to assume two lovers are interesting just because they look good. I hate when writers think two good looking people meeting are interesting enough to make a story.

The real relationship that develops in this story is between Carol and Lloyd, played by Martin Starr, who is a lonely Millennial pool boy that has no future. I’d been more impressed with this film if they had ended up hooking up. I’ll See You In My Dream is so Hollywood romantic that it’s painful. They had a real situation to explore – four lonely retired women – yet the filmmakers went for pathetic jokes about getting high on medical marijuana. They bet their whole bankroll on the two beautiful people, and ignored the possibility that ordinary folks could find friendship, connection, love and even sex.

Carol admits to Lloyd that she’s waiting around to die, and he admits he’s saving money for a future with no plans. It annoys the crap out of me that the movie suggests retired people are merely waiting around for the grim reaper to come say hello. Yes, I know I’m going to die, but I’m keeping busy until then. If this movie was truly honest, Carol and Lloyd deserve each other far more than Carol and Bill. Even the pathetic horn dog at the speed dating event deserves better than Carol. He’s trying, she’s not.

Carol Peterson is a Cinderella that passively waits for her Prince Charming. When her PC does show up, he tosses her a flirty line at the drugstore. He’s too cool to show up for speed dating. Bill on their second encounter, bluntly asks Carol out while she’s getting into her car in a parking lot while he casually sits in his car. She says yes because he’s handsome and drives an impressive Cadillac. She goes to bed with him after a ride on his yacht. She waits twenty years and falls in love after two dates? Well, that’s the way chemistry works, but I’d rather see movies about how it works for ordinary folks.

Now, here’s another area of inequality. If an ordinary guy had stopped Carol with that line in the drugstore she would have considered it sexual harassment, but because a suave hunk delivers it, she’s flattered. If Wallace Shawn had driven up in the same Cadillac and asked her out she would have made jokes about him with her friends.

The movie should have been about the four women meeting four ordinary guys at the speed dating night, and developed a story about how each found someone. Instead we have one plotline about aging beauty hooking up with aging hunk. Damn, it’s like those zillions of high school movies, always about the quarterbacks and prom queens, but at the other end of life. Why must romance always be about alphas? The film needed a heart for ordinary looking folks like Freaks and Geeks, which Martin Starr played in, or the ensemble casting of The Big Chill with its great characterization, that Mary Kay Place costarred.   

I’ll See You In My Dreams is one of those rare films at Rotten Tomato where the audience rating was much lower than the critic rating (72% to 94%). Maybe there are other filmgoers out there tired of the photogenic falling for each other. We do have to applaud Hollywood for making a film about retired people. And I’m willing to join any standing ovation for Hollywood when it makes a film not based on a comic book. But I’m always disappointed when a film doesn’t take a chance, or seeks some edginess. I also saw Inside Out this week and was amazed at its creativity. Inside Out went up to the plate and pointed to the sky and hit the ball into orbit. I’ll See You In My Dreams was content to just get on first base.

That’s the thing, I’ll See You In My Dreams is a pleasant, feel good movie. It caters to our stereotypes and prejudices. Most people will enjoy it. But they won’t question it. It doesn’t push the social awareness envelope like Dallas Buyer’s Club. It reinforces the idea that beauty is what counts, and I think for most people, they feel that’s true.

But like I said, I’ll See You In My Dreams plays to our mundane prejudices. Women friends my age who claim to be retired from sex would come out of retirement and jump into bed with Sam Elliot at the slightest come on. And most of us old guys would have picked Blythe Danner as our Sun City dream girl. That’s how we’re programmed biologically. Yet, we have evolved minds. Could you have imagined the humor if Sam Elliot had picked Rhea Perlman over Blythe Danner in a different version of this story? Brett Haley and Marc Basch should have mixed it up more instead of going for the obvious hookup of hotties.

For all those years after her husband died Carol was content with her dog as her daily companion. When she loses Bill, she replaces him with another dog. The message of the film seems to be only guys that inspire chemistry count, otherwise, all women want are dogs for housemates. Carol gets a rescue dog, but she doesn’t even consider rescuing one of those lonely men.

I know people of color get tired of always seeing us white folks up on the silver screen – well I get tired of always seeing beautiful people. Especially characters who have no redeeming characteristics other than their looks. It’s not that I want to put George Clooney out of work, but I’d like to see some leading men that look more like me. And least, it would be inspiring if ordinary guys weren’t so scorned.

JWH

Why Did The Robot in Ex Machina Look Like a Beautiful Woman?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ex Machina is a 2015 British science fiction film about artificial intelligence (AI) written and directed by Alex Garland. The story is about a billionaire  who connives to have a brilliant programmer come to a secret location to Turing Test a robot prototype. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, the billionaire, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, the programmer, and Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the AI robot.  The film has little action but is quite thrilling. And I’m overjoyed to have a science fiction movie without silly macho weapons, fantasy feats of martial arts, and cartoonish battles to save the world.

Ex Machina asks, like computer scientists have been asking for the last sixty years, and philosophers for the last 2,500 years, what makes us human? Once we understood how evolution shaped life, we knew that whatever qualities that make us different from animals should explain our humanity. Artificial intelligence seeks to reproduce those qualities in a machine. We have yet to define and understand what makes us human, and robot engineers are far from making machines that demonstrate humanness in robots.

Although I’m going to be asking a lot of questions about Ex Machina, my questions aren’t meant to be criticisms. Ex Machina entices its audience to think very hard about the nature of artificial intelligence. I hope it makes people think of even more about the movie, like I’m doing here.

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The main idea I want to explore is why the robot had a female form. The obvious answer is movie goers find sexy females appealing. But is looking human the same as being human? AI scientists has always wondered if they could build a machine that average people couldn’t distinguished from a human, but they always planned to make the tests so Turing testers couldn’t see the humans and machines. However, in movies and books, we get to see the machine beings. Adding looks to the equations make them more complicated.

Because so many robot engineers and storytellers make their robots look like human females, we have to ask:

Would Ex Machina have the same impact if the robot had a human male shape or non-human shape? 

Is the female body the ultimate human form in our mind? In a movie that explores if a machine can have a self-aware conscious mind isn’t it cheating to make it look just like a human? Since we judge books by their covers, wouldn’t most people think a mechanical being that looks and acts exactly like beautiful woman be human? By the way, I can’t wait to see how feminists analyze this film. Imagine see this movie a different way. Instead of asking if robots have souls, if the film was asking if women had souls. In the theater, we could also see two extremely intelligent men testing to see if a beautiful woman is their equal.

By making the robots female, the filmmakers both confuse the machine intelligence issue, and add a layer of gender issues. It also shoves us into the Philip K. Dick headspace of wondering about our own nature. Is everyone you know equal to you? Do they think just like you? Do they feel just like you? Could some people we know be machines? What makes us different from a machine or animal? In the book Blade Runner was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick was comparing soulless humans to machines with his androids. Machines are his metaphor for people without empathy.

If the two scientists had been played by actresses, and the robot was a sexy actor, how would we have interpreted the movie differently? A bookshelf of dissertations could be written on that question. What are the Freudian implications of us wanting the robots to look like beautiful young women? How would society react if scientists really could build artificial mind and bodies, manufacturing millions of beautiful women sexbots that have to integrate into our society? Of course, many humans will immediate try to fuck them. But if AI machines looked like people, why should they act like people? Guys will screw blowup dolls now – is a vaguely womanly shaped piece of plastic all it takes to fool those men into replacing real woman?

How would audiences have reacted if the robots of Ex Machina looked like giant mechanical insects?

Ex Machina explores many of the questions AI scientists are still puzzling over. Personally, I think it confuses the issue for us to build intelligent machines to look like us. Yes, our minds are the gold standard by which we measure artificial intelligence, but do they need bodies that match ours?

If the robot in Ex Machina had looked like a giant metal insect would the audience ever believed it was equal to a human? We think Ava is a person right from the first time we see her. Even though it’s obvious she has a machine body, her face is so human we never think of her as a machine. This is the main flaw of the film. I understand it’s cheaper to have humans play android robots than build real robots, and people powered robots look too fake, but in the end, anything that looks human will always feel human to the audience.  Can we ever have a fair Turing Test with a creature that looks like us?

We don’t want to believe that computers can be self-aware conscious beings. Actually, I think this film would have been many magnitudes more powerful if its robot had looked a like giant mechanical insect, had a non gender specific name, and convinced us to feel it was intelligent, willful, self-aware, feeling, and growing. Which is what happened in Short Circuit (1986) with its robot Johnny Five.

The trouble is we equate true artificial intelligence with being equal to humans. Artificial Intelligence is turning out to be a bad label for the concept. Computers that play chess exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that recognize faces exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that drive cars exhibit artificial intelligence. We’ll eventually be able to build machines that can do everything we can, but will they be equal to us?

What we were shown is artificial people, and what the film was really asking:

Is it possible to create artificial souls?

Creating an artificial human body is a different goal than creating an artificial soul. We have too many humans on this planet now, so why find another way of manufacturing them? What we really want to do is create artificial beings that have souls and are better than us. That’s the real goal, even though most people are terrified at the idea.

Alan Turning invented the Imitation Game that we now call the Turing Test, but the original Turing Test might not be sufficient to identify artificial souls. We’re not even sure all people have souls of equal scope. Are the men of ISIS equal in compassion to the people who win a Nobel for Peace? We can probably create robots that kill other humans by distinguishing sectarian affiliations, but it’s doubtful we could create a robot that works to solve the Earth’s problems with compassion. If we did, wouldn’t you think it had a soul? What if we created an expert system that solved climate change, would it only be very intelligent, or would it have to have a soul?

In the end, I believe we can invent machines that can do anything we can. Eventually they will do things better, and do things we can’t. But will they have what we have, that sense of being alive? What would a machine have to do to reveal it had an artificial soul?

Can a machine have a soul?

In the course of the movie, we’re asked to believe if a robot likes a human that might mean they are human like. Eventually, we’re also led to ask if a robot hates a human, does that make them human too? Is love and hate our definition of having souls? Is it compassion? Empathy? We’ll eventually create a computer that can derive all the laws of physics. But if a machine can recreate the work of Einstein, does it make it equal to Einstein?

Ex Machina is sophisticated enough to make its audience ask some very discerning questions about AI minds. Why did Alex Garland make Ava female? Across the globe robot engineers and sex toy manufacturers are working to build life-like robots that look like sexy women. The idea of a sexbot has been around for decades. Are super-Nerds building fembots to replace the real women they can’t find through Match.com? If men could buy or rent artificial women to make their sexual fantasies come true, will they ever bother getting to know real women? Why does Nathan really build Ava?

Caleb falls for Ava. We all fall for Ava. But is that all we’re interested in – looks? If Caleb thinks Ava is a machine, especially one with no conscious mind, he will not care for her. But how much do Ava’s looks fool Caleb? How much are we fooled by other people’s looks anyway? If you fall in love with a beautiful woman just because of looks, does that justify thinking you’re in love with her?

We’re all programmed at a deeply genetic level to be social, to seek out at least one other person to bond with and develop a deeper communication. What Ex Machina explores is what features beyond the body do we need to make a connection. A new version of the Turing Test could be one in which we offer people the friendship of humans or the friendship of machines. If a majority of people start preferring to hang out with AI beings that might indicate we’ve succeeded – but again it might not. Many people find pets as suitable substitutes for human companionship. I’m worried if we gave most young men the option to marry sexbots, they might. I also picture them keeping their artificial women in a closet and only getting them out to play with for very short periods of time. Would male friends and female robots fulfill all their social needs?

Ex Machina is supposed to make us ask about what is human, but I’m worried how many males left the theater wishing they could trade in their girlfriend or wife for Ava? So is Ex Machina also asking if society will accept sexbots? Is that way Ava had a human female body?

JWH

Why I Wish I Had a Memory Like a Robot

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 4, 2015

Have you ever wished you had a perfect memory? I have.

Have you ever wondered what having a perfect memory would be like? Me too.

Have you ever imagined what your memory would be like if you were a robot? Yeah, I think about such far out ideas too. Future intelligent machines will store memories as digital files, and would only forget if they decide to delete them. Robots will record everything they see, hear, feel, smell and taste. If a robot read a book or watched a movie, they could store the complete work as a file. They’d have perfect recall of whole libraries. When I spend twenty hours reading a nonfiction book full of wonderful information, I might be able to give a vague five minute summary of it two weeks later.  Robots would remember everything, and link everything in the book to everything else they know. Damn, I wish I was a robot.

I hate that I take in so much knowledge and quickly forget it. I hate my memory is so unreliable.

Bad Lands

Movie watching is a great example of my frustration with my limits of memorization. For example, last night I watched Bad Lands, an old western from 1939. I’m quite positive I’ve seen it before. I am also quite positive that I’ve experienced the same plot used in another movie. If I had a perfect memory I wouldn’t need to watch a movie again. If I had a perfect memory, I’d remember where and when I saw Bad Lands the first time. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what movie Bad Lands ripped off. If I had a perfect memory I’d know what other movies the actors from Bad Lands had been in. I’d also remember when and where I had seen those movies too. A perfect memory would mean knowing a vast web of interrelationships – much like the internet.

With the help of Wikipedia, I figured out this western was inspired by The Lost Patrol, from 1934, which I also have vague memories of seeing. And by jumping over to IMDb, I could follow the links to see what other movies all the actors from Bad Lands played in too. Robert Barrat (1889-1970) who played the sheriff, has 161 movie and television acting credits at IMDb. Some shows I remember seeing, and many more I could have seen – but alas I don’t remember Barrat in any of them, nor did my memory feel any recognition  when I saw him last night in Bad Lands. I did recognize Noah Beery, Jr. and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, from movie memories which I can’t recall their titles. I did think Guinn Williams had been a side-kick in some Errol Flynn movies, and IMDb validated those hunches. I even felt Beery and Williams had been in other movies together, but so far the internet hasn’t helped me prove that whiff of intuition.

If I was a robot, I’d be a western movie guru.

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What’s spooky is last night was the second night in a row of picking out an old movie to watch, thinking they were new to me, and realizing in a déjà vu manner, I had seen them before. The previous night I had seen Another Dawn, a 1937 flick with Kay Francis and Errol Flynn. It didn’t take long to feel I’d seen it before, but for the life of me I couldn’t summarize the plot. I enjoyed both movies because I didn’t remember enough to know how’d they turn out. I either faintly remembered the ending of Another Dawn, or guessed it, and I guessed wrong about the last man standing in Bad Lands. Being human means seeing a movie again can be fun. Would anyone with a robotic memory ever watch a film twice?

The Big TrailStagecoach

I want to remember everything. I wrote about Kay Francis last week, and listed her top films according to IMDb, but some people wanted to know which of her films were my favorites. I’ve seen many, but can only name a couple off the top of my head. I know there are others I really loved when I saw them, but can’t remember the titles, or even what they were about. Isn’t that a pisser? My memory has never been very good, and now that I’m getting older, it’s getting downright untrustworthy – even flaky.

My unfaithful memory is painful. I’d love to have the kind of memory were I could say, “These are my favorite 10 westerns of the 1930s,” and then tick them off in a flash. I can remember I love The Big Trail for 1930 and Stagecoach from 1939, but can’t remember anything in between.

One reason I called this blog Auxiliary Memory is because when I do write an essay about my favorite westerns, it will be in a memory I can recall. When I’m watching TV with Janis or Susan, I often ask them, “Where have we seen her before?” Susan is surprisingly good at remembering, and Janis is almost as good. Both are far better than me. But I think it pains Janis most when she can’t remember. We’ll often be in the middle of a really engaging show and she’ll have to pull out her iPhone to track down an actor or title. I’ll have to pause the TV, because nothing will stop her until she’s tracked down her fact. Janis is like a bloodhound on a scent when chasing an elusive memory.

I like to contemplate what life would be like if we all had perfect memories. But would we have as much to talk about if we all remembered everything? Would I turn to Janis to say, “We saw this actor back in August 4, 2003 when we saw The Ideal Husband,” knowing she already knew that? And Susan would not enjoy making fun of my poor memory, nor I get to praise her for having such a good one.

Even though we might have less to talk and joke about, wouldn’t it be great to have perfect memories? Everyone would have gotten 100s on all their school exams, and we’d have no need to take the written test at the DMV. And think how much easier it would be to write a PhD thesis having memorized all the research? And after we watched a wonderful film, we could play it over in our head whenever we wanted. Parties would be so much less stressful when we could remember everyone’s name.

Probably there’s some huge downsides to having a memory like a robot.  Although, couldn’t we just delete the bad memories? Or would we?

JWH

The Resurrection of Kay Francis

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 28, 2015

This essay is written for a blogathon hosted by Pre-Code.com and Shadows and Satin.

Who is Kay Francis? She is a long dead movie star who was once famous in the first half of the 1930s. Few remember her today. So, why am I writing about her now? For some reason I love seeing her movies when they come on Turner Classic Movies, even though they’re generally lousy films. Why? Well, I think Kay Francis is the most fascinating and beautiful of all the actresses of the 1930s. Other fans of 1930s films are taking note of her again too. Kay Francis said she wanted to be forgotten, and the men who made her movies never imagined them as lasting works of art, so why are we remembering Kay Francis now? There is two kinds of fame, one is contemporary, and the other is historical. Kay Francis once had fame for a few years, and then was forgotten. Why are we resurrecting Kay Francis now?

Kay Francis 1941 The Man Who Lost Himself

Kay Francis is the perfect subject for a study in fame. Back in the 1930s Kay Francis was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, with legions of fans, and her image adorning more magazines covers than anyone but Shirley Temple. Yet, today she is virtual unknown. Why are Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn from that era remembered as superstars, but not Kay Francis? Many people believe great movie stars make films great, but it’s my theory that’s its great films that make great movie stars. Kay Francis isn’t remembered today because most of her films were forgettable, and that has destroyed her memory in popular culture. Strangely enough, as Warner Brothers attempted to force Kay Francis to break her high salary contract by putting her into forgettable films, Kay Francis refused to give in, took the parts Warner’s pushed on her, collected her huge paychecks and is quoted as saying, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.”

She almost got her wish, if it wasn’t for Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the growing interest in Pre-Code Hollywood. I don’t think Kay Francis cared for fame, and I doubt any of the filmmakers then thought movies would become a lasting art form. This is before television and DVDs, and maybe even film festivals. It’s only us fans who love the past that want to make sure the objects of our affection aren’t lost forever. What will it take to resurrect Kay Francis?

Biography

Who was Kay Francis? Unless you’re a hardcore TCM addict, it’s doubtful you’ve heard her name. Visit Wikipedia for an excellent concise summary of her life. Kay Francis was known for her striking beauty, and the ability to play daring women. Francis was born in 1905, and started her acting career on Broadway in the Roaring Twenties, just before sound movies came out. Kay was at the right place at the right time, because Hollywood began a massive import of Broadway actors to work in the talkies. Kay Francis made nineteen films at Paramount before going over to Warner Brothers to be the new queen of their production lot. Warner Brothers then proceeded to use her star appeal to sell second rate projects, riding Kay Francis’ fame with fans for all its worth. Eventually the public got tired of seeing mediocre films that didn’t match her talent. Warner didn’t renew her contract, and Francis became a free agent. She continued to make movies, some even decent, but none that would keep her name alive in our new century. Her career peaked in 1932 with three movies, that are only remembered today by connoisseurs of Pre-Code Hollywood. She died in 1968, at age 63, which is how old I am now.

Pre-Code Kay Francis

The appeal to Pre-Code films is hard to explain. Simply, they are sound films made before July 1, 1934 when a national censorship code began to be rigorously enforced. Only in recent decades has Pre-Code become a distinctive sub-genre of 1930s films. When the public remembers films from the 1930s today, then tend to remember those made in 1939 – Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The early sound era, before the production code took affect, was a primitive time for “the talkies.” As actors and technicians worked out their techniques for the new art form, pictures improved dramatically as the thirties progressed, and by 1939 they were stunning. The few pop culture favorites today from the early 1930s tend to be films that appeal to young people, like Tarzan of the Apes, King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Thin Man, Little Caesar, Public Enemy, etc. Only hard-core old movie fans remember the dramas, melodramas, literary and historical films of the 1930s.

Pre-Code films are now remembered for pushing the limits of the state censors. Pre-Code films explored the reality of sex and violence in  contemporary culture that both shocked and titillated Great Depression audiences. Some films made serious social statements and others exploited sensational subjects. It’s hard to say why some Pre-Code film buffs love those films when 21st century flicks are far more daring in their explorations. What’s the appeal of skimpy dressed actresses in crudely made old black and white movies, when modern actresses show far more flesh in brilliant high definition?

I can explain why I love those films. I imprinted on 1930s black and white films by watching television in the 1960s. Everyone acquires their pop culture tastes in early adolescence when books, television, movies and music brand on their formative minds. In the early sixties, I imprinted on 1960s rock and roll music, 1960s television, 1950s science fiction and 1930s movies. I love being up late at night in a darkened room lit only by the flickering light of old black and white movies.

When I talk to young people today, most of them claim they can’t stand black and white movies, and hate movies from the 1930s because the acting seems funny to them. They see a film like Grand Hotel as silly, not stylish like I do. To me old films are an alternate reality, one that glitters in infinite shades of gray, exuding style and glamour. Yet, this can’t explain why Pre-Code films deserve their attention. It’s definitely an acquired taste, like learning to watch silent films. I long ago gave up expecting any of my friends to share my enjoyment of 1930s movies. I do spot fellow fans on the net writing about TCM or in the comment sections for the DVDs on sale at Amazon.com. I suppose we’re like fans of other older dying art forms, like pulp magazines or 78 jazz records.

Kay Francis’ real life was more Pre-Code than her Pre-Code films. She was a predatory divorcee years before Norma Shearer made them famous. She was involved in three way love affairs long before making Trouble in Paradise. Kay Francis had a huge sexual appetite, consuming men and women in far greater numbers than all her film lovers combined. All her reel-life roles as cutting edge women were merely cleaned up versions of her real-life experiences. Pre-Code Hollywood films explored the lives of women with bad reputations, not as sinners, but as daring explorers on the social frontiers. Kay Francis grew up living those lives, first traveling with her mother a stage actress, and then later on her own, in New York and Europe. By the time she went to Hollywood in 1929, she had lived most of the roles she played in the 1930s.

Kay Frances was recreating her own experiences onscreen, in glamorous costumes she changed dozens of times a picture. In her most famous films, she was a sexy goddess of sophistication, looking great even when she was down and out, or even dying. For a few years in the 1930s, Kay Francis was so alluring that moviegoers fell in love with her, but in the second half of the decade her fans moved on.

To understand why people in the 1930s fell for Kay you have to watch her films. But which ones?  What I’ve done is identify her five best films through the film ratings at IMDb. Then I list her next twelve highest rated films, but these are harder to find, and probably will offer little appeal to most modern movie watchers. I’m hoping the top five films transcend their times and appeal to audiences of any time. If Kay is to be remembered, it will have to be through films that are remembered. I’m encouraged that Trouble in Paradise has enchanted some of my younger friends. That gives me hope. I am always delighted to see Jewel Robbery over and over again, and wonder if it will appeal to 21st century television watchers. I know One Way Passage is a quaint melodrama, but I still love it. I’m not sure modern audiences can handle it’s over-the-top sentimentality.

Kay Francis would still be famous today if she had gotten to work on a great film. If Kay had starred in one of the AFI’1 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this essay. Would The Philadelphia Story been that different with Kay Francis instead of Katherine Hepburn? Hepburn is considered a much better actress than Kay Francis, but who knows. Kay always seemed up to the roles she was offered. Her weakness was she didn’t fight for them, choosing instead to do what Warner Brother’s asked – until it was too late. Obviously actors are not interchangeable – I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else doing Blonde Venus but Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Harlow starring in Red Dust. But Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis had so many great stories, it’s a shame that Kay Francis couldn’t have had one or two of them. I fantasize that MGM would have found better vehicles for Kay Francis.

Sadly, we have what we have, and some of Kay’s best films are magical if you are the right person for them. Luckily, I am.

Kay’s Top Five Films

There’s no absolute way to judge something like a film, so these top five pictures come from a voting system at IMDb. There is some validation to this list from reading about Kay Francis, from the All Movie Guide, from comments at Amazon for those films on sale, and from my own experience watching them. Kay Francis was known more for her typecasting rather than her acting range. She did have a speech impediment that writers had to work around, and her fans demanded to see her in expensive gowns rather than character costumes, so there is a certain unreality to her stories. In her most popular films, Kay played rich beautiful women in designer gowns framed by Art Deco sets, but in some of her less famous movies, she played business women, doctors, nurses, gold-diggers, and women down on their luck.

Only three of these five films are available on DVD: Trouble in Paradise, One Way Passage and Jewel Robbery, so you will have to haunt the TCM Schedule each month in hopes of catching the other two. Nor will I recommend you rush out and buy them on my recommendation. Catch them on cable first. There’s a good chance you won’t like them. Only a small percentage of avid movie watchers like movies this old.

The decimal number with the title is their current IMDb rating.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) – 8.2

Trouble in Paradise Francis Hopkins cropped

Kay plays Madame Mariette Colet, a rich and beautiful owner of a French perfume company, who is targeted by jewel thieves Gaston, Herbert Marshall, and Lily, Miriam Hopkins. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise is the one Kay Francis film that often shows up on lists of the best films of the 1930s, and it was an early film added to the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Trouble in Paradise was considered one of the top ten films of 1932, and Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies collection. This one film is Kay’s best hope for being remembered by 21st century movie fans.

The plot of Trouble in Paradise involves Herbert Marshall choosing between two beautiful women, his equal-in-crime partner, Miriam Hopkins, or the wealthy woman with all the jewels he falls for while trying to rob her, Kay Francis. The plot is light and slippery, and the banter airy and breezy. Sadly, even the best of prints are not pristine, giving the impression that the film is very old indeed, showing its age at 83. It’s a damn shame that Fox Grandeur 70mm widescreen filming didn’t become standard in 1930. I would never dream of wishing 1930s movies had been in color, but I sure wish the prints had been super high resolution and widescreen. I wonder if modern film fans would be more accepting of old films if they didn’t look so old.

 

One Way Passage (1932) – 8.2

One-Way-Passage-21

I’ve seen One Way Passage many times – it’s all style and little substance, a stateroom melodrama set on a ship crossing the Pacific. Both characters are destined to die at the end of a long voyage, one for his crimes, the other for her weak heart. Both keep their fatal destinies from each other, promising a lifetime of devotion.

Like many 1930s melodramatic films, One Way Passage has a second string of characters providing comic contrast. Frank McHugh plays Skippy, Dan’s sidekick, who meets Aline MacMahon in the backstory, playing Barrel House Betty, a fake countess con woman. Frank McHugh uses Aline MacMahon to run interference for his buddy, with Steve, the cop that’s guarding Dan, played by Warren Hymer. The entire show is just 68 minutes, so while the action is very slow, the story moves very fast.

Many of my favorite movies from the early 1930s run under 90 minutes. The studios cranked out the content, with actors often doing four to eight films a year. The quality of the storytelling is often less complicated than an hour of modern TV. William Powell gets a fair amount of character development, but not Kay, who is defined by her limits of physical exertion.  I have to wonder if One Way Passage was longer, say the 104 minutes of Dark Victory, and given more rewrites, if it wouldn’t have been a much more popular film today. I think it’s a lovely romantic idea that needs fleshing out.

Often these movies made for depression era shop girls had little in the way of real characterization. The men were painted quickly as suave and debonair, and the women sketched even faster by the fashions they wore. The lovers would drink and smoke, and banter innuendoes to each other. Part of this staginess was due to back lot sets and primitive microphone techniques of the early sound years.  Yet, I believe One Way Passage generates maximum charm with such little effort by Powell and Francis, as if they were impressionistic actors. If you have the 1930s movie gene, this film is enchanting.

I imagine, when I get very old and bedridden, I’ll prefer the elegant simplicity of 1930s storytelling on my deathbed to the long complicated films of today. The ending of One Way Passage, or On Borrowed Time, offer death fantasies that would be very pleasant to die by.

Pre-Code films were made during the heart of the depression. They offered both silly escapism and gritty realism. They were made for my parents’ generation, who were teens when these films came out. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the life back then, when people didn’t have television, computers, cellphones and the internet. I don’t think most citizens of our technological century can tune into this 1930s version of dream time. I can because some of my earliest memories are waking up to watch the all-night movies with my father. Philosophically, I’m light years away from the common mindset of 1930s moviegoers.  Yet, emotionally I resonate with these stories.

One Way Passage works so well for me because William Powell and Kay Francis are my favorite actors from this period. Understanding why is harder to explain. Maybe the stars we admire are the ones we wished we could be or be with.

Confession (1937) – 8.2

Confession_1937_poster

Confession is a film that I only vaguely remember seeing. Like most of the films of Kay Francis, I caught them on television, usually TCM, and their details are in the jumbled mess of my memories. I remember the basic plot and mostly the ending. I was surprised this film was so highly rated on IMDb and I’m looking forward to catching it again on TCM, or buying it if it ever comes out on DVD.

Even though Kay Francis is only 32 years old when this film was made, she plays a mother, Vera, of a 17-year old girl, Lisa, played by Jane Bryan. The story centers on an older man, played by Basil Rathbone, chasing Kay’s daughter. Since this story has a surprise ending and is more complicated than most of Kay’s usually films, I won’t go into the plot. And that might be one reason why it’s remembered so well, even though the story was only complicated enough to require 87 minutes to tell. The reason why we remember actors and actresses of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz is because they got to play meaty distinctive characters. If Kay Francis ever had a chance to play more characters like Scarlett O’Hara, she would have have been remembered today.

If Kay Francis had shot Basil Rathbone as viciously as Bette Davis shoots her object of hate in The Letter, then Confession might be more remembered. Bette Davis became the box office queen for Warner’s after Kay Francis fell from grace. And the truth is, Bette Davis was a much better actress because she had such killer instincts in real life. Kay never fought Warner Brothers like Bette did. Kay was a lover, not a fighter, and she got dumped.

Girls About Town (1931) – 8.1

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Girls About Town is the kind of picture that typifies Pre-Code films – you get to see Kay in her underwear, and’s she’s a slutty gold-digger. I’m surprised by it’s 8.1 rating at IMDb. The film’s popularity might be due to Joe McCrea growing stardom. However, the interplay between Francis and Lilyan Tashman, friends in real life, make the movie even more suggestive. Kay was just 26 for this picture, but she looked older. Depending on her hairstyle, wardrobe, and how the cameraman filmed her, Kay could look round faced and older, or thin faced and younger. This made her look old fashioned and at other times modern. Seeing her in this earlier picture probably captures more of what she looked like in real life. Her Warner Brother pictures featured a far more crafted look. It’s a shame she didn’t get to play more physically active characters, because her slinky manikin posing was great for Hollywood glamour, but poor for demonstrating acting ability. Look how animated Tashman is below while Kay plays it coolly.  Kay’s directors should have pushed her to be more kinetic.

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Jewel Robbery (1932) – 7.5

Jewel-Robbery-cropped

Kay plays a flibbertigibbet who seems to have only one thing on the brain: JEWELS!  Kay is married to a dull older man, Henry Kolker, who works hard to feed her gem habit to keep his beautiful young wife from running wild. We know Kay isn’t faithful right from the start, but when her rich husband takes her diamond shopping and the store is robbed by a gang of jewel robbers bossed by the magnificently charming William Powell, Kay stops thinking JEWELS and starts thinking MAN!

This is the fifth of seven times Powell and Francis would act together.  They play off each other wonderfully. It’s a shame Kay didn’t get to play Nora Charles, because she’d definitely be remembered today. Kay certainly had real life drinking practice down for the role.

Jewel Robbery is another film that fits into the Pre-Code appeal for its adultery, sexiness, innuendo and even drug use, but it’s all done with such a light touch that I can’t even imagine Will Hays himself being bothered by the film.

 

The Best of the Rest

Using the ratings at IMDb, I picked the next dozen highest rated Kay Francis films. None of these films are going to be remembered by the public at large today, but they aren’t bad if you like old movies from the 1930s, especially Pre-Code films.

  • The House on 56th Street (1933) – 7.4
  • Mandalay (1934) – 7.3
  • Guilty Hands (1931) – 7.3
  • Secrets of an Actress (1938) – 7.3
  • In Name Only (1939) – 7.3
  • 24 Hours (1931) – 7.2
  • The Vice Squad (1931) – 7.2
  • Cynara (1932) – 7.2
  • Strangers in Love (1932) – 7.2
  • Stranded (1935) – 7.2
  • First Lady (1937) – 7.2
  • Divorce (1945) – 7.2

francisopener

Most of us will die and be forgotten, but sometimes the accomplished among us will live on in history, maybe not forever, but longer than they ever imagined. Kay Francis is fading fast in pop culture immortality. It’s strange that I know about Kay Francis. Why did I bond with the movies of the 1930s when I was growing up in the 1960s? The simple answer is television. 1960s music and television imprinted on me because that’s what I heard and watched as a teenager. As a kid I seldom went to new movies, and never bought the latest bestsellers.  Old movies and books are what I was exposed to first. That’s how I got out-of-sync with my pop culture times. The art forms you’re exposed to in your formative years are the ones you live with for the rest of your life.

What draws us back to these old films time and again? What makes us scrutinize the TCM schedule every month looking for that rare film we haven’t seen? What makes us frequently search Amazon hoping to find a new DVD of a very old film we’ve been waiting years to be released.

There is the real world out there, with terrorist bombings, climate change, drunk and texting drivers, mad shooters, a world filled with hating and conflict. Sure, our alternate celluloid reality is also filled with killing, hate and conflict, but it’s not real, and the good guys triumph. We love Pre-Code Hollywood for its grittiness, the exact same thing we’re trying to escape.

Box Office Poison

In the May 3rd, 1938 issue of Independent Film Journal, Harry Brandt, of the Independent Theater Owners of America, published an article called “Dead Cats” where he listed the actors and actresses his group felt were no longer making his group money, claiming the movie studies were overpaying them, and they were box office poison. Among those he listed were Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, John Barrymore, and Kay Francis. Garbo famously walked away from Hollywood in 1941. John Barrymore died in 1942.  All the others continued to make films, including Kay. She made 16 films after 1938. Yet, Brandt was right, and Kay Francis was no longer the star she had been.

Why Isn’t Kay Francis Famous Today?

Kay Francis said time and again she wanted to be forgotten, yet she relished the limelight as long as she could. Near the end of her life, Francis got drunk and passed out at a New York restaurant. While her friends were carrying her out to a cab, a young man walked by and asked, “Is that Kay Francis?” Kay opened one eye and said, “It used to be.”

We like to believe the star system that emerged in Hollywood during the 1920s and 1930s defined a kind of pop culture immortality, yet that fame was temporary for all but a few legendary actors and actresses. Long term fame isn’t determined by publicity and box office. When we’re looking at decades and generations of memories, what lasts are the great films, not the stars. Sure, the stars in those films are remembered, but they are remembered for the films. I search the TCM schedule every month for Kay Francis movies and watch whatever’s available, knowing the odds of enjoying a good story is small.

I remember Kay Francis for her beauty but beauty offers no lasting fame.  And if you’re an actor seeking historic fame, you need to play an immortal character. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara make us remember Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. We would never remember Johnny Weissmuller if not for Tarzan.

We don’t remember Kay Francis because we don’t remember Mariette Colet, Joan Ames, or Baroness Teri von Horhenfels. And that’s the ultimate lesson of this essay. Great characters and story are everything. If we can’t remember the character, we won’t remember the actor. The legacy of Kay Francis will never be resurrected like her fans hope. Kay Francis had a tremendous life as a real person, just read her biographies to be dazzled, but the characters she played were never real enough, not like the woman who played them.

References

JWH

The Pre-Code Blogathon–March 31st to April 3rd

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do you love old black and white movies? Especially the ones before 1934? Well, Danny at Pre-Code.com and Karen at Shadows and Satin are hosting a blogathon to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Production Code. If you’d like to join in visit this page. I’ve signed up to write about Kay Francis.

I’ve written about Pre-Code Hollywood before. If you’re a hardcore TCM viewer, then you already know what Pre-Code films are. If you don’t know, follow the link and read. If you’re already a fan, bookmark Pre-Code.com or Shadows and Satin and come back at the end of the month.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I loved staying up late watching the all-night movies on television. There’s something about sitting in a darkened room, when everyone else is asleep, escaping into the past by the flicker of black and white movies.

JWH

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Birdman?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 17, 2014

Birdman is an intense multiplex examination of acting, and you need to remember there are two unseen actors – the reality you watching from the theater seat, and the fantasy you that watches from inside your head. Birdman depends the participation of both your personalities to tell its story.  We’re all at least two people, and a good actor will play a character as one person, but a great actor will play the character as normal human with its dual natures.

Michael Keaton has gotten a great deal of attention for Birdman, which comes with a subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Whether or not that subtitle is useful in explaining some of the mysteries of this movie is still a mystery to me. Keaton plays Riggan, a clichéd down-on-his-luck movie star, with estranged wife and daughter, trying to resurrect his ego to fame and family by directing himself in a Broadway play of Raymond Carver’s famous literary short story, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan had previous acclaim and wealth in Hollywood playing the superhero Birdman three times, but refused to come back to the role a fourth time. Of course, Keaton played Batman, and Batman Returns, and since we haven’t seen much of him lately, Birdman feels autobiographical in the sense that we know Keaton doesn’t need much rehearsing to get into character. Keaton is absolutely perfect for Riggan.

birdman

Birdman is all about acting. It’s also about Broadway, and reminds me of All About Eve, The Sweet Smell of Success, and most especially All That Jazz, which when you think about it, gives the impression that doing a Broadway play requires actors to live at the event horizon of insanity. Keaton’s Riggan is certainly unstable, a man psychological crushed by a character he can’t escape playing, that now haunts him as his alter-ego.  Riggan is desperate to find success, fame and love again, all the while tortured by his current failure as an actor, father and husband.

Like I said, Birdman is all about acting. Michael Keaton plays roles, within roles, within roles, until until we forget all about Michael Keaton, and feel like the man on the screen is truly insane. Throughout the film we see Riggan perform what appears to be superpowers of Birdman as if they were real, only later to discover we were watching Riggan’s fantasy POV. The movie is filmed in what appears to be one long continuous take, which increases the manic intensity of the characters. Keaton is joined by Edward Norton who plays Mike, an over-the-top method actor who antagonizes all the actors to go completely into character, and pushes Riggan into constantly upping his performance. Throughout the story, the two reverb off of each other until their characters are insane frenzies of feedback.

The women of the story anchor the two men to reality. Amy Ryan plays Riggan’s ex-wife Sylvia who’s unflinching compassion gives us hope she can bring Birdman down to Earth. Even his resentful daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, the cause of much of Riggan’s emotional distress comes to connect closely with him in the end. Yet, the ending of this movie is baffling unless you see that we’re all two people – a real person and a fantasy person.

The whole play within a film is rather baffling too. Why Raymond Carver? I went and read “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love” after seeing Birdman, but it has provided no insight.  Michael Keaton’s performance is a tour de force. Birdman is an intense roller-coaster ride of acting and emotion. Yet, does it say anything about love? There are all kinds of relationships in Birdman, but I never felt they were the focus of the story, and I think Raymond Carver is just as peripheral.  Ultimately, I think Birdman is really about acting, and what acting does to people. The trouble is, and I hope it isn’t true – Birdman tells us that great acting requires an all-consuming psychic toll.

In the end we forget Michael Keaton, because he’s become Riggan, who has forgotten himself and become Birdman. But who are we, the audience in the end? The realistic you will see a different ending than the fantasy you, but think about what the fantasy you wants to believe in the end, and why. In the end, we’re all actors and actresses.

JWH