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Grand Ideas

Film critic Joel Siegel catches a Hollywood classic--and starts thinking

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate postfilm conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"Do we have to see Anna Karenina?"

Joel Siegel is killing time in between bookstore appearances on behalf of his autobiographical new book, Lessons for Dylan: From Father to Son. His tour has brought the New York-based film critic and Good Morning America icon to Northern California for a few days, so I've invited him to catch a movie with me at the Rafael Film Center. It so happens that a three-week-long Greta Garbo film festival has been running, so I suggested we see Anna Karenina, partly because of its famous moody death scenes and partly because Lessons for Dylan is, well, a book about death.

Funny, fierce, and occasionally rather raw in its honesty, Siegel's book is a record of the advice and personal memories he began writing for his son "just in case," after learning that he was to become a father the same week he was diagnosed with cancer. On arrival at the theater, Siegel confesses that after weeks of reading his book aloud to fans, he'd rather see something cheerier than Anna Karenina.

"It's so depressing," he grins.

And that's why we've just seen Grand Hotel, the 1932 MGM classic starring Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and everyone else MGM had on contract at the time. A bittersweet farce about ballerinas, jewel thieves, evil businessmen, and the other colorful denizens of a swank Berlin hotel, the film takes place over 24 hours and--Siegel must have forgotten about this--begins with Lionel Barrymore discussing his own impending death at the hands of some dread disease.

"I couldn't help but notice the irony," I point out, as we sit down after the show at the bustling cafe next door. "Your book is about cancer, so we chose Grand Hotel instead of Anna Karenina, and then the first thing we see in the movie is a guy on the phone proclaiming, 'My doctor tells me I'm going to die!'"

"That's right," Siegel laughs. "Oh, well."

"On the other hand," I mention, "the moral lesson of the Grand Hotel is the nice old message, 'It's not how much life you have to live, but how you live your life that matters.' Having fought the battle with cancer that you write about, how do you respond to a movie with a message like that?"

"I don't take it seriously," Siegel replies. "I really don't. I can't watch an MGM movie like this, a splashy entertainment from the 1930s, and take it seriously. I watch it only as a movie, as a piece of movie history, as a piece of social history. To me, it's nothing but fluff. It's not about life and death. It's about bigger-than-life movie stars from Hollywood coming together to make a movie."

MGM, Siegel says, was the only studio that had that many stars of that level to put together in a film. "Life was not so easy in 1932," he says, "and if you were going to get people to cough up a nickel or 7 cents or whatever it was to go to the movies, then you were going to have to really show them something. This was the 1932 equivalent to a hundred million dollars' worth of special effects. They couldn't give you great special effects in 1932, but what they could give you was Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, and all those others.

"The other reason I loved seeing this movie again," he adds, "was for the performance of Joan Crawford."

Good point. In Grand Hotel, Crawford plays a struggling freelance secretary who is not above sleeping with a client, if the money is right. "That was a real, almost contemporary performance," says Siegel. "Everyone else was so campy, acting loudly at every single moment--it was very 1930s. By the 1960s, you couldn't get an actor to do that and you couldn't get an audience to sit through it if they did."

Siegel poses an interesting question. "I wonder--and I don't know the answer to this," he says, "but we learn so much from the movies. We get our ideas of the world from the movies. In this one, we see Greta Garbo sleeping on silk sheets. So were silk sheets always what wealthy people slept on? Or did silk sheets become our idea about how fancy people sleep because we saw people like Greta Garbo sleeping on them in movies like Grand Hotel? And were silk sheets only used in movies because of the way light bounces off the silk, giving black-and-white film the kind of texture that cotton sheets or linen sheets couldn't do?

"I don't know the answer," Siegel continues, "but I know that people do learn a lot of what they do because they saw someone do it in a movie first. Think of how often people say, 'Look at that, it's just something like in a movie.' It used to be that reality was our frame of reference, reality was the standard, and movies tried to emulate reality. Now it's the other way around.

"In my book, one of the things I wrote to Dylan is that the 20th century was, without a doubt, the century of film. Film was invented at around the turn of the century, and it carried us through the 20th century, and I believe that the most profound lessons of the 20th century were learned, in part, through watching movies. These were significant lessons about human beings, about the universality of the human experience."

Siegel, in his book, does make the case that recent shifts in the way we view other races, other nationalities and cultures, the way we adapt to changes in the equality of the sexes and to the shifting ways we view people of different sexual orientations, have all been mirrored--and possibly pushed along--by the movies we see.

"The real changes that have come about over the last century have to do with the way we treat each other," Siegel says, "the way we judge each other, and how we see our environment, and I really do believe that the movies have had a lot to do with that. Good for the movies."

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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