A spaghetti western with French seasonings, Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) is a Franco-Italian co-production shot in Almeria, Spain, the definitive badlands landscape of the Euro-western. The director, screenwriters, two stars, and even composer are French and the supporting cast largely Italian. And while this is not shot in the widescreen dimension of CinemaScope, de rigueur for genre, is features the familiar conventions: taciturn anti-hero, bleak desert setting, spare style, mercenary characters, and a culture so steeped in corruption that the closest we get to justice is justified vengeance.
French movie star turned filmmaker Robert Hossein helms the film and casts Michèle Mercier, with whom he starred in a successful series of historical romances in France, as a frontier wife widowed in the first scene. The Rogers clan, the ruthless land barons of the territory, have been trying to drive them out of. When Maria’s husband and his two brothers rob the Rogers, they have all the excuse they need to execute him right in front of her eyes. Hungry for vengeance, she seeks out Manuel (Hossein), who lives in the saloon of a ghost town that looks like the abandoned set of some earlier western, not just empty but being reclaimed by the wind and the sand. He says that he’s hung up the gun but is coaxed into taking her job, in part by her husband’s share of the robbery, in part by whatever unspoken past is churned up in their long, lingering glances.
“‘I die in Iron Man,’ says Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian man with a salt-and-pepper beard. ‘I die in Executive Decision. I get shot at by—what’s his name?—Kurt Russell. I get shot by everyone. George Clooney kills me in Three Kings. Arnold blows me up in True Lies…’ As Sayed and Waleed and the others describe their various demises, it strikes me that the key to making a living in Hollywood if you’re Muslim is to be good at dying. If you’re a Middle Eastern actor and you can die with charisma, there is no shortage of work for you.” Jon Ronson talks with seven actors of Middle Eastern descent on their current status in Hollywood—a paucity of good roles, but steady work if you’re willing to play terrorists. (Speaking of stereotyping, the article’s very title gets one thing wrong: one of the actors featured—Anthony Azizi, who blames the industry’s hang-ups on xenophobic hangover from when Omar Sharif dated Barbra Streisand—isn’t, in fact, Muslim-American.) Via Movie City News.
“At a cursory glance, he’s no different than any other movie nut. He enjoys a good potboiler, citing the Denzel Washington-led Equalizer remake and TV’s The Blacklist, Chicago PD and Law and Order: SVU as recent viewing highlights. He loves too many movies to pick a favourite, but he knows damn well that he hated 2013’s Will Smith vehicle After Earth. ‘It was so bad!’ he laughs. ‘And I was very frustrated, because I know if they gave me a fraction of that money, I could’ve done so much more.’” One old solution to the stereotype problem—taking up the camera and telling your own stories—is finding its latest manifestation in Columbus, Ohio, where Charles Bramesco finds Samatar Haji, filmmaker and co-founder of Olol Films, who’s been supplying the Somali émigré community with exploitation features and documentaries of their very own.
“But by continuously policing their ambitions, the Duplasses have been able to build an entire ecosystem for making the kinds of character-driven dramedies that the industry has all but abandoned. Mark concludes his keynote by reiterating his admonition to ignore the false lure of Hollywood success. Take it from him: Even if you become an indie-cinema celebrity with dozens of films and a successful HBO series under your belt, the cavalry is not coming. But then he gets to the kicker. ‘The good news is, who gives a fuck about the cavalry?’ he says. ‘Because now you are the cavalry.’” Jason Tanz profiles Mark and Jay Duplass, whose combination of pragmatism—their feature debut, The Puffy Chair, was built around some available props—and share-the-wealth generosity have led to a production career whose moderately-scaled Midas touch might stumble only if the two work themselves to death.
Of course not every low-budget film finds an audience, or is even meant to. Mike Pearl recounts the oddity of 1994’s Fantastic Four, which was made only to extend an option on the rights and was never meant to see the light of day. Not that anyone told director Oley Sassone.
“[Silent Light] wasn’t an influence for me—YET (I have to see it but want to see it on a big screen… somehow!)—but for my DP Ashley Connor. She talked about Stellet Licht (2007) the whole time we were making Mild and Lovely. She was like: farm film! She was like: weird framings at the dinner table! She was like: immersive grass experience!” Josephine Decker fills in the BFI on some key influences—for herself and her collaborators—on her two celebrated features.
David Bordwell’s annual excursion to the Summer Film College in Belgium led to his viewing a series of German silents, from which he comes away ever more convinced that Caligari “now seems to me almost consciously anachronistic, rejecting the reverse angles and precise scene breakdown that were becoming common”; and, relatedly, that Conrad Veidt could drag a film into expressionism all by himself.
Peter Cowie recounts meeting one of Bergman’s key but generally unsung collaborators, composer Erik Nordgren.
“But only focus on the past through the clear movie-theater dark and you are a changed person, and can begin to live again.” The Paris Review publishes an excerpt from poet (and Guy Maddin collaborator) John Ashbery’s 1971 prose poem “The System” on how movies can alleviate the “permanent condition of nausea” that is contemplating the past. Via David Hudson.
“My problem is that I’m middle-class. If I was crazy I might be better. That probably accounts for my output. I lead a very sensible life: I get up in the morning, I work, I get the kids off to school, do the treadmill, play the clarinet, take a walk with my wife. It’s usually the same walk every day. If I were crazy, it would help. If I shrieked on the set and demanded, it may be better, but I don’t. I say, “Good enough!” It’s a middle-class quality, which does make for productivity.” Even before the line about the clarinet gave it away, you probably pegged that as Woody Allen, doing his self-depreciating, amusingly misanthropic, I-did-nothing-wrong-and-we’re-still-very-much-in-love thing with Sam Fragoso.
“But I remember with the scripts for a number of them, for quite a while, I would explain to the writer what I wanted. And I would get back—always in treatment form, I believe in treatments before going to the screenplay—the girls set up the way I wanted. They would have a problem to be solved. But in these scripts, their boyfriends would solve the problem. And I remember how many times I would say to the writer, ‘No, they must solve the problem themselves.’ It killed the whole idea if their boyfriends come in and solve it. That was something that seemed, to me, self-evident, but I remember many times having that same discussion.” David Thomson once asked if Roger Corman’s willingness to work with women behind the scenes was feminism or economy. As his interview with Alison Nastasi makes clear, it’s the former, but the effect on budgets of efficient collaborators is never far from Corman’s mind.
“Not to reinvent [myself], but to have the impression that a new film is a first film in a way. That’s the impression that I have when I do a film anyway. I don’t feel blasé. I wouldn’t like to do something and have the impression that I’ve done it before and it’s just going to be one more day. There should always be a challenge in the everyday life of work.” Catherine Deneuve chats with The Talks about what has changed in her 50 years of making films (cameras, the types of stories) and what has remained constant (her own desire for challenges).
“And then it worked like this: I went out on the right side as he entered from the left side and I stood next to him. He signaled that something was to be cut and I intervened. It was all very strict and precise. Then he put himself at the center of the room and, with a cigar in his mouth, he controlled the situation from there. At times he indicated things to change, to adjust or to put back in the edit. It was like a waltz, with its timing, its precise movements, and a series of rituals.” Welles.net translates a recent interview Alessandro Aniballi conducted with Mauro Bonanni, Welles’s assistant editor on Don Quixote—and the cancelled CBS show Orson’s Bag, The Deep, and whatever other reels Welles had on hand to play with.
“Yeah, we did very few takes for exactly that reason—it would have taken forever to clean up all the blood. The main thing I remember about shooting Re-Animator is that my shoes stuck to the floor the whole time.” Stuart Gordon discusses some of his early movies—including Re-Animator, From Beyond, and, why not, Robot Jox—with Jim Hemphill.
Adrian Curry offers eclectic highlights of his Movie Poster of the Day tumblr postings for the past three months, from classics for Rashomon and Paris When It Sizzles to stunning new designs for Lanthimos’s The Lobster and Tarantino’s The Hateful 8. Plus a fan poster for Mad Max: Fury Road so good it overcame Curry’s general reluctance to feature posters from such non-official sources.
Russian filmmaker Vasily Pichul won acclaim for Little Vera (1988), the comic portrait of a troubled teen in the Soviet Union in the early stages of political and social reform (this was still year away from the fall of the Berlin Wall). His next film How Dark the Nights Are on the Black Sea (1989) screened at Cannes in 1990 but none of his subsequent films had any impact outside of the Soviet Union. He passed away at the age of 54 from lung cancer. Sam Roberts for The New York Times.
Steve De Jarnatt will present his film Miracle Mile at NWFF on Friday, July 31 at 6:30. He will sign copies of the newly-released Blu-ray and DVD special editions of his two features, Miracle Mile and Cherry 2000, before the screening, and follow with a Q&A. Scarecrow Video co-presents the event. You can get tickets in advance from the NWFF website.
Collectors take note: there’s a Vintage VHS Horror Swap Meet at Scarecrow Video on Saturday, August 1. Details at Bloody Disgusting.
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.
It only takes a quick scan of Robin Williams’ filmography to see how unusual his movie career really was. He cashed in his Mork-fame with Robert Altman’s fantastically weird Popeye and a winning lead role in a literary fantasia, The World According to Garp. Every time he scored huge with pure comedy, à la Mrs. Doubtfire, he quickly turned to melancholy parts that suggested an urge to save the world. (He and his Awakenings co-star Robert De Niro have the same clenched, uptight body language when they move across the screen.) And the past 15 years are riddled with creepy, depressed little indies in which he played throttled men who were sometimes quietly desperate, sometimes malevolent: One Hour Photo, The Final Cut, The Night Listener, and World’s Greatest Dad. Never widely distributed, these strange portraits emphasized what was tightly wrapped and uneasy about Williams—something that was always there, even in his big successes.
Boulevard, completed the year before Williams’ suicide, is one of those portraits.
Shouldn’t the documentary come first, followed by a fictionalized feature “inspired by true events”? Not in this case. Ben Affleck’s Argo introduced many viewers to the Mission: Improbable that sprung six U.S. diplomats out of Iran after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy. Argo was a Hollywood entertainment all the way, even copping the Oscar for Best Picture. Now comes a Canadian documentary that drops the brassy drama of Argo for a more straightforward approach. Its title refers to the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Kenneth Taylor, who not only sheltered the American escapees during their hiding but also fed information to Jimmy Carter’s government for the (ultimately, tragically) botched attempted rescue of the other hostages.
The movie is simply called Court, and the generalized title is as potent here as it is with Kafka’s nightmare novel The Trial. The storyline follows the process of a specific case in India, but the movie’s reach is big enough to imply that an entire legal apparatus is under indictment. In the early going, a white-bearded folksinger named Narayan Kamble is arrested in mid-performance. (He’s played by non-actor Vira Sathidar, a vivid real-life Pete Seeger type.) The charge against him has something to do with the idea that one of his songs inspired a sewer worker to commit suicide on the job, although there’s zero evidence that the death wasn’t a workplace accident due to hazardous conditions. That Narayan’s songs are acidly anti-government is not mentioned in the prosecution’s case.
The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
Nicolas Roeg’s previous work as a cinematographer may have a good deal to do with the purely visual sensation of watching Don’t Look Now, the third picture he has worked on as director (having co-directed Performance and soloed with Walkabout). One feels the sensitivity of some of Bergman’s recent films on which Sven Nykvist has worked, or of Jan Troell; but Roeg’s sensitivity in this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is closer to the hypersensitivity of someone (the main character, John Baxter, played by Sutherland) who notices everything and cannot help noticing everything about his environment; someone who is flooded with visual and psychic stimuli which so glut his consciousness that his sense of spatial and temporal orientation begins to wobble. For this, Venice is the perfect setting: a contusion of grotto-like canals, disintegrating stone, and faintly echoed voices—the Venice, in fact, through which Visconti’s Aschenbach stumbled in search of the boy Tadzio.
Here Is Your Life (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1966 feature debut of Swedish director Jan Troell, is ambitious by any measure: an epic (over two-and-a-half hours long) coming of age drama based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winning author Eyvind Johnson set in rural Sweden during the years of World War I.
It was also a response to the symbol-laden, psychologically heavy cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which was pretty much all the rest of the world knew about Swedish cinema in the early sixties. Here is Your Life, the feature debut of Jan Troell, was part of a new wave of Swedish cinema. Not quite Sweden’s answer to the nouvelle vague, it nonetheless ushered in young (or at least younger) filmmakers and different approaches, from the passionate romanticism of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan to the freewheeling intimacy of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious – Yellow, both 1967.
Framed in those terms, Here is Your Life is a fresh take on the classic historical drama. Olaf (Johnson’s stand-in, played by Eddie Axberg) is a mere 13 years old when he leaves the farm of his foster parents (sent there because his real parents are too poor to feed him) and sets out to make his own way in the world. The film follows him through his teenage years as he moves from job to job—he works at a lumber camp, a brick furnace, a sawmill, a movie theater, a travelling tent cinema, a carnival shooting booth, and maintaining the engines at a railroad yard—and schools himself by reading philosophy and attending socialist meetings.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
Maybe, against all available evidence, there really does exist a viable culture of young film heads here in Vancouver. But I doubt it. Subtract El Topo, Siddhartha, Zachariah, the Brothers Marx—big draws like that—and what’ve you got left? An empty auditorium, that’s what. When University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 schedules a Bogie series, it sells out, sure; what else is new? But suggest, as I did a couple of years ago to Cinema 16’s student coordinator, that future series include work by Oshima and you learn that Boy, recently screened, was not well liked, was in fact disliked: for its (sic!) “sentimentality.”
“Dickey wrote a long speech for himself to give as the sheriff. And Boorman was such a clever man and brilliant filmmaker he told him, ‘When you start this speech, you have to come to the front of the hood of the car and say that paragraph. Then come over to the window and talk to the character of Ed directly.’ So Dickey did it. And then of course what happened was that John simply took out the section where Dickey was standing in front of the hood. He got Dickey’s speech down to a workable size. But Dickey was an actor—he acted in his daily life. He put drama into everything. That’s what I figured out.” Timed to commemorate the publication of the novel, John Meroney’s oral history on the making of Deliverance focuses mostly on John Dickey’s possessive attitude towards the story and characters, and the friction that resulted. Which provides plenty drama enough for a good read. Via Movie City News.
“Now, one of the executive producers at the time was Marty Scorsese. And Marty’s independent film person was his ex-wife, a woman called Barbara De Fina, and there were some disagreements with Barbara…. Well, then Marty’s leaving, she says. And I’m like, oh fuck, Marty’s my idol—he’s leaving? And you know in terms of selling the movie, losing Marty’s name, I mean… there are no stars. So I call Larry and I go listen, if we make this deal, Marty is going to be gone. Do you care? And he goes, ‘Are we going to be able to start this summer? Yes? Then fuck him.’ The next thing I know we’re making a movie.” Another oral history about another film where a band travels through the wilderness, as Eric Hynes gets participants to recount the making of Kids. No real surprises, as the ones you’d expect to be obnoxious prove to be so and the ones who look back graciously have all gone on to better things.
David Thorpe tells us he got the idea for his documentary when he was riding a train from his home in New York to Fire Island. Surrounded by gay men, Thorpe was struck by the sound of the voices he heard around him. Being gay himself, he wondered: “Do I really sound like that?” He quickly found the answer to be “yes,” and then decided the idea of a “gay voice”—how and why such a thing exists—might make a good subject for a personal-essay film. There’s an irony here, which is that so many practitioners of the first-person documentary, from Michael Moore to Morgan Spurlock, seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices. Thorpe insists he isn’t happy with his. But he sure does talk a lot.
He hit someone while driving, and he should report it. But our morally swampy protagonist has a few drinks under his belt and a lot to lose, and besides, nobody is around this lonely crossroads. Anyway, he’s a South Korean police detective—he can handle this. From such fatal misjudgments, many entertaining movies have come, and A Hard Day is an entertaining movie. Plot holes and unlikely incidents will be glimpsed only in the rearview mirror, because director Kim Seong-hoon is moving too fast for us to work out the logic. The cop is Geon-soo (played by the believably crafty Lee Sun-kyun—you can see ideas crashing like waves across his face), a brash young homicide detective whose mother has just died. He concocts a brilliant/insane idea to hide the victim of his vehicular incident inside Mom’s coffin, a scheme that leads to a suitably crazy sequence at the morgue.
I have never understood why anybody (outside of professionals in the biz) would care how a movie was shot or how much it cost. What matters is what’s up there onscreen, yes? Kudos to low-budget geniuses who work magic on a shoestring, but what does that have to do with how we watch the movie? So knowing that Sean Baker shot Tangerine entirely with iPhones may be worth a chummy “Cool story, bro,” but it’s not exactly news that anybody with a device can make a movie. More important is that Tangerine bristles with zany energy and unexpected humor, and that Baker has a fine eye for dynamic, on-the-fly angles in fast-food joints and inner-city streets.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
It’s one hell of a note. Here’s this interesting-looking movie playing at, of all places, the Eve, a centrally located Vancouver softcore house: Erotic Dreams—originally (reliable sources) Wet Dreams. The long, narrow ad in The Province has caught my eye: “1st Erotic International Film Directors’ Festival.” A titillating uncertainty already, you see, as to whether it’s the “international film directors” who’re erotic or the Festival itself. Well, there they are, ten of ’em, international as hell, and among their names I find “Nicholas Ray (U.S.A.) … Dusan Makavejev (Yugoslavia) … Heathcote William (Great Britain).” Is this for real? Could “Heathcote William,” for example, actually be the Heathcote Williams, a major British playwright (AC/DC, The Local Stigmatic)? Or do we have here one of these tiresome Madison Avenue dodges in which a “Richard Nixon” is quoted hailing the virtues of a new brand of biodegradable prophylactic but proves (ha ha!) to be only a humble cabdriver from the Bronx? This “Dusan Makavejev,” so-called, am I to visualize some beetle-browed Balkan guy located via the Hollywood phone directory, then, or is it possible that he is the real article? Enough of speculation. I adjust my raincoat, I pay my (!) three dollars, and I enter the steamy precincts of the Eve.