The feature debut of Gus Van Sant, adapted from the autobiographical novel by Portland author and street poet Walt Curtis, is an intimate black-and-white tale of l’amour fou steeped in the culture of Portland’s (now long gone) skid row. Shot on 16mm, on a tiny budget of $25,000, Mala Noche is a true American indie, made before the term was ever coined, let alone used as a marketing hook. It’s a modern beat movie of lust and friendship and unrequited love among the down-and-outs. And it’s also a groundbreaking landmark of queer cinema thanks to its offhanded acceptance of a gay character as a protagonist. Walt’s homosexuality is a given, a simple matter of fact, rather than a statement. Rare enough at the turn of the 21st century, this was unheard of in 1984, when Van Sant shot the film on the streets of his adopted home of Portland, Oregon.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Man on a Swing is one of those anomalous films with a few pretensions to major standing scattered amid the telltale half-measures and slipshod surfaces of a B-picture. Exhibits A, C, and D (B having just been spoken for): Joel Grey, who was probably embarking on this film about the time he carried home a Supporting Actor Oscar for Cabaret last year; Cliff Robertson, an actor of apparent intelligence and integrity who followed up on his own Best Actor award (for Charly) by writing, producing, directing, and starring in his own modest, intriguing movie J.W. Coop, and lending himself to such commercially unlikely but very distinctive experiments as The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid; Frank Perry, onetime Brave Independent Artist who launched himself with the privately financed David and Lisa, then went on to such heav-veee projects as Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Play It As It Lays. Doc (which was pre-Lays) marked his first excursion into genre territory—and a sour, humorless, genre- and self-debasing excursion it was. Man on a Swing indicates a slight improvement: Perry turns in unassuming, if also undistinguished, work on this story about the investigation of a sex murder in a small town firmly entrenched in Middle America.
“At times, he spontaneously pulls over to the side of the road for a good five or ten minutes to finish a train of thought—about life or death or demons or fears or his favorite soccer team in Argentina, San Lorenzo. About the time in the wilds of New Zealand when he skinned, cooked, and ate his own roadkill. (“It was there.”) […] We could’ve gone straight to Watertown and stayed there, and we could’ve gotten there a hell of a lot faster, but Mortensen, his two hands resting gently on the bottom of the steering wheel, doesn’t like to drive too fast. He doesn’t want to miss a thing.” Viggo Mortensen does everything his own way, even the celebrity profile, which has him picking up writer Lisa DePaulo at the airport near the small town where he’s sitting deathwatch over his ailing father.
The journal Awotele, which profiles underseen African cinema from the perspective of underheard African critics, has a new issue on the challenges and rewards of multi-lingual cinema and new filmmaking technologies. Among the highlights (check the issue’s table of contents to learn what page to flip to), Martial E. Nguea considers “the reality of a certain conflict between the popular appreciation of filmmaker and professional distinctions awarded in different countries by different juries”; Michel Amarger recounts the multifaceted career (fictions, documentaries, gallery installations) of the “ambitious utopian” Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama (“It is easy to believe him shen, from behind his round glasses, he defies his critics saying: ‘if it’s not mission impossible, I’m not interested.”); Claire Diao explores the hazards of a distribution system so indebted to French culture (“How can anyone fall so quickly from the spotlight and into the shadows…. It doubtless has much to do with the Francophone system of promoting African filmmakers.); Oumy Régina Sambou takes a more critical looks at the promise of new technologies than some of her fellow writers (“the new modes of distribution have led to changes in filmmaking and film distribution, but not to the point of democratizing their fabrication, and especially not their quality”); and Domoina Ratsara offers a specific cautionary tale looking at how the rise of distribution of Madagascar television has led to the proliferation of ads interrupting even cinematic endeavors. Via Tambay Obenson, himself via David Hudson.
“Pretentiousness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but there’s nothing “mere” about Harris’ adaptation of John Collier’s short story “The Sleeping Beauty,” about a man who purchases a mysteriously slumbering woman from a traveling carnival and brings her home to be his companion. On the contrary, Some Call it Loving is fully, aggressively pretentious, wearing both its fable-like aspirations and caustic cultural critique on its impeccably tailored sleeves.” In a way that makes its critique strike home all the harder, Adam Nayman argues, who goes on to praise one of its few descendants, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, as an ingenious effort to wrest the metaphor back into female hands and desires.
“A while back I distinguished between “stubborn stylists” like Bresson and Tati, who cling to their preferred techniques through thick and thin, and adaptable ones who modify their approach as broader norms change. The early films of Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni were indebted to a deep-focus style, but late in their careers they began to rely on the pan-and-zoom techniques that became widespread in the 1960s and 1970s. There’s another possibility, though. You the filmmaker can try out your rival’s methods, but then push them in directions that extend your own inclinations.” Which is precisely what David Bordwell discerns Edward Yang was up to in A Brighter Summer Day, adapting some of the long-take aesthetic of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Taiwanese New Cinema in general even as it marked his definitive forging of his own path.
“And perhaps the zero-to-90mph structure is meant to offer a provocative metaphor for life. Yes, life. For aren’t we all, in some sense, just waiting to party on a zeppelin? No? OK, maybe it’s just the Siren.” Watching DeMille’s Madame Satan means suffering through an hour of clichéd setup and “sexless” leads (though Other Woman Lilian Roth proves a happy exception) for the delirium of musical extravaganzas set in a costume ball aboard the flying ship. By the Self-Styled Siren’s reckoning, it’s worth it.
“As with my previous articles, I should note that there are spoilers aplenty throughout the next 5,000 words. If you don’t want to know when Blade Runner’s sole appearance of Eurostile Bold Extended occurs, look away now.” Dave Addey takes an exhaustive survey of the fonts used in Blade Runner’s signage, computer displays, and papers; a riot of diverse typographies that reinforce the polyglottal bustle of the city’s Los Angeles even with the many economical reuses of props Addey’s diligence uncovers. And if you must know, you can spot Eurostile Bold on Deckard’s Spinner. Via Movie City News.
“There’s incredible effect in being either loved or hated, but knowing that, either way, you have penetrated the mind and have altered it; that is a very pleasurable feeling. Because in the end, self-indulgence is very much about your ego and your vanity and your own id. The more you can indulge in it, the more pleasurable it becomes. And then when it feeds out, it’s able to penetrate the mind and create a reaction. There is a sense of my own—it becomes very sexualized. At the same time, I also believe on a practical level, if you’re taking time away from people, besides entertaining them, I think it’s important that there’s something to react to. Because reaction is what changes your understanding of the world. Good and bad, I don’t really care. I don’t even understand it.” Interviewed by Alex McCown, Nicolas Winding Refn proves his contrarianism by endorsing narcissism and self-indulgence, attitudes he points out that are actually so taboo they’re rarely even acknowledged as such.
A pair of legendary cinematographers give interesting interviews this week. Mark Lee Ping-Bing talks with Daniel Eagan about working on such films as Tran Anh Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun and Hou’s Flowers of Shanghai. (“I tried to follow those who are listening rather than those who are talking. These gradual and unnoticeable movements aimed to capture actors’ performance and expressions. You can tell the movements by looking at the oil lamp shades on the table and the frame’s left and right shifts.”) And Willy Kurant is interviewed by Duncan Gray and Quentin Carbonell about shooting Masculin Féminin. (“So I’m coming back to Godard on the set—‘I’m going to give you something very simple’—and we did not rehearse. I was sitting on an Elemac, an Italian dolly, my assistant by my side. And I realize that what Godard wanted me to do was the most complicated thing because it was one shot lasting something like 10 minutes, where I was moving from one person to the other person. And the problem is: rehearsals. I never had one. And the legend from people who had been around me was: ‘Oh, he needs a rehearsal because he’s coming from the classic cinema.’ Come on!”)
(Mubi, which is trumpeting their streaming of Masculin Féminin, also has an interesting article by Clare Nina Norelli on Godard’s use of music, and especially the pop strains of yé-yé, in the film: “Paul likes classical music, Madeline likes pop songs. Past and present. Marx and Coca-Cola. Masculin Féminin.”)
“But still, this is France, and that means there is only the will of the State. The will of public authorities. That means literally that at the beginning of the 80s people making cinema were forced to move to video—I mean, forced. We got the money, we got everything, we got even more money than before, but we had to make it in video.” Jonathan Rosenbaum has posted an excellent 2002 interview he conducted with Raúl Ruiz that digs deep on a few subjects that seem natural topics to discuss with the director but came up less than you’d think: financing, and working under such varied conditions.aum/
Anton Yelchin was a young actor with a great string of performances and a solid future when was killed in a freak car accident at the age of 27. Best known for playing Chekov in the new series of Star Trek features, the Russian-born Yelchin began as a child actor, making his name starring opposite Anthony Hopkins in Hearts in Atlantis (2001) and going on to star in the indie features Alpha Dog (2006), Charlie Bartlett (2007) Middle of Nowhere (2008), Like Crazy (2011), The Beaver (2011), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), 5 to 7 (2014), Experimenter (2015), and Green Room (2015), which is still in theaters. Star Trek Beyond opens in July. Dave Itzkoff for The New York Times, and more tributes and remembrances are collected by David Hudson at Keyframe Daily.
Australian filmmaker Paul Cox made his name in the eighties with a series of idiosyncratic films with an offbeat, sometimes dark sense of humor, beginning with the sweet romantic comedy Lonely Hearts (1982) and getting international attention with Man of Flowers (1938) (reviewed on Parallax View here), My First Wife (1984), Cactus (1986), and Innocence (2000) (reviewed on Parallax View here). He passed away at the age of 76 following a long battle with cancer. Karl Quinn for The Sydney Morning Herald.
The weekly links page is compiled and curated by Bruce Reid, with obituaries curated by Sean Axmaker, and other contributions from friends of Parallax View.
For one week only, the new restoration of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) plays at The Uptown. Welles developed the film from a stage production drawn from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” and “Henry V” (as well as “Holinshead’s Chronicles”) centered on Falstaff (played with bedhead and bulbous nose red with drink) and his bad-father relationship with young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the heir to the crown of England, is his wastrel years. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up,” Welles said of the film, which suffered from distribution issues, competing claims of ownership, and degraded prints almost from the time it was completed. Now it has been lovingly remastered from the negatives and Janus films (a partner with Criterion) has applied digital technology to create a new digital restoration for the U.S.
It’s a Brian De Palma weekend. The documentary De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, opens at The Uptown while short retrospective Obsessions: Classic De Palma, featuring seven De Palma films, plays through Sunday at the SIFF Film Center. All tickets to the retrospective screenings are $5 and SIFF members get free admission (based on ticket availability).
At a time when more and more promising directors are quickly swallowed up by the remorseless blockbuster machine, there’s something admirable about a filmmaker like Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night), who is seemingly content to stay a rung or two down on the respectability ladder and continue refining his chops. The Shallows, Collet-Serra’s new primal screamer, may not be his best work—that honor still falls to the wonderfully sick Orphan—but its single-minded devotion to getting viewers to grip their armrests is really something to see. Clocking in at a lean and mean 86 minutes, it takes its deliberately simple premise and comes close to knocking the damn cover off of it.
“And that’s when I came up with the flying utensils.” A seemingly innocuous phrase, right? If the speaker is a Disney animator, you might be visualizing a charming sequence of movie magic. But no—the speaker is Brian De Palma, so this out-of-the-blue comment can only lead to something perverse. His fans will know that the notorious director is talking about Piper Laurie’s death scene in Carrie, his 1976 horror hit. On the page, the telekinetic Carrie gives her mother a heart attack. Speaking to us in the documentary about him, De Palma rolls his eyes over how uncinematic this would be. Why have a character simply clutch her chest and fall over when you could send an arsenal of flying cutlery toward her, crucifying the evil witch in her own contaminated house?
This is one of dozens of stories in De Palma, a feature-length interview in which the filmmaker, 75, tells anecdotes, copiously decorated with clips from all his films. The tidbit about Carrie is typical of the documentary at its best: It’s a colorful story, but it also underscores De Palma’s keen, sometimes lurid grasp of what cinema is. That scene in Carrie may be over the top, but it is cinematically alive in a way that De Palma’s better-behaved colleagues rarely touch.
The problem with writing about Jeff Goldblum’s speech patterns is that the things that make them so distinctive—the spoken italics, the stutter-step changes in pitch, the sense that he’s parodying his own line readings, sometimes in the middle of said line—are almost impossible to replicate in print. Consider this valiant effort to transcribe Goldblum’s Goldblumisms, taken from Independence Day: Crucible, a novel that serves as a prequel to Independence Day: Resurgence.
“I’m not—clearly not—the leader type. Evil counselor, I can do, you know, the guy plotting in the shadows, Cardinal Richelieu and so forth—”
Almost. Almost, but no.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.
Paul Cox’s paean to the power of love opens on a boy and a girl biking down a country path, so magnetized by their young lust they must hold hands even as they ride. She’s blooming, dressed in richest blue and red; as they kiss hungrily on a bridge, she anchors her hand on a metal floodgate wheel. The camera lowers, to show that the stream’s current can’t be stemmed. It flows swiftly onward, its movement—echoed by the accelerating train that soon separates them—wiping away their youth. Forty years, two marriages and several children later, Rose (Julia Blake) and Andreas (Charles Tingwell) reunite and find they’ve fallen in love a second time, not as old, fading folk but as continuations of the joyful boy and girl they once were. Cox visually makes an eternal Nowness for these four characters, mixing memory and present rediscovery, lovemaking in the woods and in a home filled with the accumulated treasures of a lifetime, ripe and fallen flesh.
[Originally published in The Weekly, November 21, 1984]
Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers begins with a painting and a striptease. In the case of the former (which appears behind the opening credits), the camera eye is at first focused in tight, on the refined profile of a Renaissance nobleman and, to his left, a pale forest of organ pipes. An actual forest is visible in the distance—to be precise, part of a meticulously landscaped park of which the gentleman seems to be taking survey from a balcony. Still inventorying the details of the painting—patterns of shrubs and trees, the statue of a satyr—the camera drifts rightward and then starts to withdraw slowly, so that we begin to perceive the composition entire. The last element we become aware of is a naked woman, alabaster and robust, a curving landscape unto herself and the real focus of the man’s transfixed (we now recognize) gaze.
The striptease which almost immediately follows recapitulates, but also revises, the dynamics of this aesthetic movement. This time we open on a closeup of a woman, a saucy working-class gamine (Alyson Best) who proceeds to remove article after article of her clothing, to the “Love Duet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, for the delectation of a well-to-do client. The camera pulls back slowly so that eventually we are watching from somewhere behind this seated gentleman’s left shoulder. As with the painting, the shot contains a great deal more information. The setting for the striptease, a room in the man’s house, is as meticulously and symbolically composed as the environment of the painting. In fact, the young woman stands in front of another painting, modern, abstract, a complex of curved and thrusting shapes evocative of human genitalia, male and female at once. The space surrounding her is replete with statuary, objets d’art—and vegetation. Whereas the painting behind the main title is by definition frozen in time, a snapshot of erotic potentiality, Cox’s “action painting” of another erotic moment not only suggests the Renaissance painting become movie, but also indexes the particular sensibility of Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye), the watcher/artist seated at right who has willed the moment into being.
“Before I knew anything about Polanski, Repulsion was already important to me as a film that represented certain uncomfortable aspects of being female, and learning that its creator is a rapist only served to make it even more emblematic of that experience. Thanks to its context, Repulsion is more than a movie to me; but, as the movie it is, it’s also more than a painful emblem of the horror of being female.” Elsie Moore kicks off her intriguing read on Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”—Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant—addressing “the elephant in the room” not for shock value or to shore up her p.c. cred, but as the first and most troubling of the many paradoxes of identification and subjectivity that give these films their disturbing elusiveness. Staying at Bright Lights, Mervyn Nicholson takes a semiotic tour—riveting and overreaching by turn—through the coincidences that link The 39 Steps, North by North West [sic throughout, though at least the photo captioner gets it right], and Blow-Up. (“The coincidence is the point where what is in front of the screen of appearances coincides with what is inside that screen, behind it, hidden from view. It is the point at which we glimpse what is behind the screen of appearances. A pattern becomes visible that was invisible before: the pattern was in that picture, yet not visible, until now. The coincidence signifies a shift in perception. It is a metaphor for insight. It is insight that dispels an illusion, and it requires a coincidence to make this shift happen.”)
“The portrait is the thing. The flesh-and-blood woman is a complication, a set of contradictions that threaten to overturn the “Lauras” presented or created by her mentor, her lovers, her rivals. But that painting that rests above the mantelpiece, a swoony, romantic provocation—it offers no argument. Its power is not only the movie’s thematic fixation but also played out in the film’s creation, reception, and enduring legacy. The famous still of detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), collapsed in a chair in front of the portrait, half-drunk and mesmerized, is the stand-in for scores of viewers of the film, haunted by its power to reflect back our own dreams and desires—for a past or imagined love, for the return of something lost, for anything at all.” Megan Abbot is terrific on the ferocious subversions of Preminger’s Laura, the way it urges us to fill in the negative space of its presumptive dead heroine with not just necrophilia but “our own longings, our own subversive desires.”
The 2nd annual Twist of Pride Film Festival opens at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, June 17 with a 20th Anniversary screening of the Seattle-produced Crocodile Tears (1996) followed by the World Premiere of Brides to Be. The festival runs through the weekend. Schedule and tickets here.
The documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, about the making of the legendary shot-for-shot remake of the Steven Spielberg film by a group of schoolkids with a camcorder over the course of seven years, plays through Sunday, June 19 at Northwest Film Forum.
The Best of SIFF returns for revival showings of 12 features (including six award winners) and a program of short films over the next seven days at The Uptown. Complete schedule is below and tickets at the SIFF website. (Festival passes and vouchers are not accepted for these showings.)
When Walker Evans traveled into 1930s America and photographed the people hit hardest by the Depression, he captured the perseverance and dignity of poor folks in the rural South. A similar journey is traced in the new documentary The Other Side, but here perseverance has become hostility and dignity is in shreds. In modern-day West Monroe, Louisiana, the faces are distorted by methamphetamine and alcohol, animated by fear, and given definition by resentment toward an enemy (the black man in the White House, gun-safety advocates—any enemy will do).
For two-thirds of the film’s running time, we follow Mark and Lisa, lovers and lost souls. They cook and sell meth, sometimes tenderly injecting each other. We first see Mark waking up naked along a roadside, the first of the film’s startling images; director Roberto Minervini shoots the scene as though it’s the first morning in an American Eden (the sculpted photography is often in direct counterpoint to the squalid living conditions).
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.