[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
I first saw TheHireling last summer, during a week full of events filmic and otherwise. Shortly thereafter, the chief impressions I carried with me were the sight of Sarah Miles near-deathly white, a strained smile on her face and wet rosy bruises beneath her eyes, and the feeling of having watched some schematic playing-out of the old English class warfare game. Perhaps, after my recent second viewing has receded into the past, these formerly overriding impressions will reassert themselves. But I’m inclined to doubt it. The film is an exemplary study of how class structures both create opportunities for privileged intimacy between two persons of different castes and certify the ultimate withering of such relationships; there can be no more succinct image of the hopelessness of the lower-class lover’s situation than the final scene of the chauffeur slamming his prized Rolls-Royce (which he hires out, along with his services) into first one wall, then another, then another, in a claustrophobic courtyard. This level of the film is very clear—and ‘schematic’ isn’t really a fair word to apply; ‘lucid’ is more like it. The fact is that, as the film plays—at least, as it plays a second time—the social comment simply does not stand out starkly. The societal system is there, almost palpably; but it’s merely one part of the film’s structure. Of equal importance—and, with the social theme taken more or less for granted, of greater importance—are the richly inhabited, sympathetically nuanced performances of Shaw and Miles, and the abiding sense of Alan Bridges’s sensitive, detailed, impeccably craftsmanlike realization.
[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from TheLastDetail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But TheLastDetail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.
Via Criterion, a pair of tributes to iconic (in one case at least, for all the wrong reasons) actors. Bilge Ebiri salutes Jeff Bridges for having grown into the rugged outsider that was the promise and undercurrent of his career all along. (“Bridges has finally eased into the part of the western hero. But he’s still, somehow, that same questioning, restless kid. And it’s that quality that lends these roles a kind of otherworldly complexity—that takes them out of the realm of cliché or caricature. He’s still playing a man whom the times have passed by—a survivor who recognizes that there’s no place for him in this world.”) And Sheila O’Malley revisitsSudden Fear to remind us that dismissing Joan Crawford as camp or a perfectionist obscures how much emotional truth she could pack into her carefully planned bits of physical business. (“There is a sequence that is up there with the best work Crawford ever did: Myra hides in a closet, face drenched in sweat, hand clamped over her mouth to suppress the sound of her breathing. Even more astonishing, there is only a thin band of light illuminating just a portion of her face. Crawford does more within that thin band of light than most actors can do in full spotlight.”)
While at Criterion itself, an excerpt from Arthur Hiller’s autobiography recalls in breezy, conversational tones the making of The In-Laws (“As wonderful as Peter and Alan were in the firing squad scene, they were equally wonderful in so many others, whether it was an action scene or a normal one. I shouldn’t say “normal,” because each scene was offbeat. What I liked about the picture was that it was rooted in reality. As outrageous or off-the-wall as most of the scenes were, you felt they could happen. You even felt Peter was driving backward on the freeway into oncoming traffic.”); and Imogen Sara Smith tackles that eternal question of film criticism, What Makes a Film Noir a Noir?, by arguing for the inclusion of The Red Shoes into the canon. (“Don’t get me wrong: I love these iconic elements as much as the next noir addict, but I also see the essence of noir in films that look and sound very different. This essence lies below the surface of crime and violence, in an interior world of alienation, anxiety, obsession, disillusionment. Or as crime writer David Goodis sums it up in his novel Nightfall: ‘a certain amount of confusion, some despair mixed in, and some loneliness, and some bitterness, and topped with a dash of desperation.’”)
“Utilizing characters and landscapes in such a way, Reichardt’s films resist an easily definable tone. Action is anecdotal rather than decisive, fragmentary rather than fluid: not quite gestural or symbolic, but a little too improvised or elliptical to seem fully realistic. Favoring the quotidian over the set-piece, the writer-director makes us work: at the beginning of Meek’s Cutoff, all we get in terms of exposition is Oregon, 1845—which appears on the title card—and one character etching “LOST” into a tree trunk. Dialogue is frequently off-screen: some exchanges unfold solely through reaction shots, which effectively frustrates our scene-to-scene orientation.” Michael Pattison stalks the mysteries and unspoken motivations that tie Kelly Reichardt’s films together in a “cinema of misfits and margins.”
“Nowadays this story might be taken by James Gray, casting Mark Wahlberg in the smooth-talking Bourke role and the more earnest Joaquin Phoenix as Kennedy, a quintessential 1930s brotherhood standing on each side of an urban moral divide. Except Gray would linger on the grave splendor in these men’s beings, the operatic challenge of being a cop, a husband, a man. Edward L. Cahn is no less serious but achieves a leanness which bares the emotion and the tenseness of these two lives, Kennedy’s and Bourke’s, without lingering for a single extra moment on something beyond themselves—or too deep within. When Kennedy sees himself in uniform in the mirror we don’t get a richer psychology, a flashing psychic charge, or a forceful, sculpted mythos. We see a man looking at himself in uniform.” Daniel Kasman argues the budget-dictated leanness of Radio Patrol—or rather Cahn’s ingenious employment of it—is one of its great strengths.
“When you do sports movies, it’s really a bummer to take fields of play away from people, so we hunted for new courses that people hadn’t played yet. That’s how we got Kingwood and Deerwood, in Houston, as our U.S. Open site. We had the USGA come in to lay out the course in real U.S. Open conditions. And we fell in love with Tubac Golf Resort and La Paloma, in Arizona, for Roy’s local driving range and for the qualifying-round scenes. We could’ve muscled our way into a lot of places, but you don’t want to shit on golf fans just to make a movie.” Chris Nashawaty’s oral history on the making of Tin Cup pales compared to previous such articles on Ron Shelton films, whose sports environs and themes of competition tend to inspire a fun, macho garrulousness when their makers look back. Though it is interesting to learn that out of all Shelton’s movies, the one explicitly designed to appeal to a female audience might have been the most hell-razing offset, thanks mostly to Don Johnson avoiding downtime boredom.
“One day, Marty announced that next week’s movie was Rear Window. This caused quite a stir. No one had seen Rear Window in years. Hitchcock refused to allow any public screenings. How was Marty going to pull it off? That Tuesday, the class was packed. People were sitting on the floor, in the aisles, and on the radiators when Marty entered the room wearing a cowboy hat and firing a cap gun into the air. Now that he had our attention, he had a confession to make. He had lied to us. We were not going to see Rear Window until next week. Groan. Instead we were going to see a John Wayne western in which the Duke plays a racist bastard. ‘If you leave the room, you fail the course,’” Marty said. Big groan. The Green Berets was in release, and only Richard Nixon was less popular than John Wayne. Is this what we had gone to the barricades for? Marty guarded the only exit with his cap gun. ‘This movie is called The Searchers and you will never see a better western.’” Leonard Maltin reprints a wonderful 1983 reminiscence by Allan Arkush of NYU film school in the ‘60s: from pretentious student films and porno films covertly shot on campus to the manic-talking teacher whose enthusiasm for American genre films proved so infectious; and who would later would wear these influences on his sleeve in the likes of Mean Streets, New York, New York, and Taxi Driver. Via Matt Fagerholm.
“We had only one moment of confrontation. There was a gorgeous picture of her on the front cover, and on the back I showed her with Bogart. Absolutely not, she exploded; this was her book, not his. That really pushed my buttons. ‘Listen, Bacall,’ I said, ‘people want to know about you and him, and you’ve written hundreds of pages about him. It’s my job to sell your book, he’s the major selling point, and he’s going on the back cover.’ ‘Fine,’ she said. Like most actors she responded positively to a strong directorial hand. By then, of course, we had developed a real . . . friendship? Not exactly, because I don’t think she had a talent for intimacy; she was too wary. But she was a good, loyal pal, so I suppose what we had was a real palship, and it lasted for decades.” In an excerpt from his autobiography, Robert Gottlieb recalls editing the memoirs of Lauren Bacall, Irene Selznick, and Selznick’s (ultimately Gottlieb’s as well) hated forced companion, Katherine Hepburn.
“In each case [of reaction to her successive films], it was too much. Too much love and then too much hate. The Artist was not the best film of its year, and The Search was not the worst. You realise you’re in the middle of something that has nothing to do with you.” Ryan Gilbey interviews Bérénice Bejo about how she deals with lack of control, whether over the critics turning on her and husband/director Michael Hazanavicius or dealing with the existential blow of terrorist attacks on French soil.
“The way I generally work is that I do try to leave as many decisions as I possibly can to the day of, because it feels like that’s where you’re most in tune to what’s going on. I sort of feel like my job is to be a conduit to opportunities, to maximize the creativity of the day itself—because that’s when the cameras are running. That’s the important thing to me. Some of these shots you need to think about it advance; you need to have some ideas for them. And some of them are things where you just go, ‘Well, let’s try that.’” Hell or High Water’s David Mackenzie talks with Ignatiy Vishnevestsky on the benefits of shooting quickly and on the cheap.
Director Arthur Hiller was part of the class of Playhouse 90, developing his craft directing live TV drama before moving to such TV shows as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman, Naked City, and Route 66. He made his feature debut with the 1957 film The Careless Years but remained primarily a TV director until the mid-1960s and directed his biggest hit in 1970: Love Story, which earned Hiller his sole Academy Award nomination. He directed two Paddy Chayefsky scripts (The Americanization of Emily, 1964, The Hospital, 1971), brought two Neil Simon plays to the big screen (The Out-of-Towners, 1970, Plaza Suite, 1971), and directed Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). He directed a musical (Man of La Mancha, 1972), a horror film (Nightwing, 1979), and one of the first serious studio dramas to explore a gay relationship (Making Love, 1982), and was picked by Alan Arkin to direct The In-Laws (1979), considered by many (this writer included) to be one of the funniest American films of its era. He also served as president of the Director’s Guild of America and of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award in 2002. He was 92. Dave Kehr for The New York Times.
Kenny Baker was the man in the R2-D2 suit in Star Wars (1977) and its next five sequels and prequels (as well as the notorious made-for-TV The Star Wars Holiday Special). The British actor, who measured 3’8″ high, spent his life in show business, skating in ice shows, performing stand-up comedy, and appearing in variety shows. On the big screen, his biggest role outside of the Star Wars universe was playing Fidgit in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). He had small roles in Flash Gordon (1980), Amadeus (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), and Labyrinth (1986) and co-starred in the BBC adaptation of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989). He passed away at the age of 86 after a long illness. Nicola Slawson for The Guardian.
Fyvush Finkel had a long career in Yiddish theater before he broke through to mainstream audiences with a featured role in the TV series Picket Fences and later on Boston Public, both from creator / producer David E. Kelley. On the big screen he appeared in Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Q & A (1990), For Love or Money (1993), Nixon (1995), and in the prologue of the Coen Bros.’s A Serious Man 92009). He died at the age of 92. Joseph Berger for The New York Times.
A 35mm print of the award-winning animated French feature Fantastic Planet (1973) plays on Saturday, August 20 and Thursday, August 25 at Grand Illusion. Andrew Wright reviews it for The Stranger: “… its combination of seriously trippy illustrations and groovy jazz-porny musical score creates a stunning, vividly potent sensation. Once it hits your brain, it’s there to stay.”
This week’s free outdoor movie at Cal Anderson Park is Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) with Jane Fonda. The screening begins at sunset on Friday, August 19, around 8:30 pm, but viewers are encouraged to arrive early for a good seat, concessions, and entertainment by a DJ playing from 7pm.
On Tuesday, August 23, Magic Society presents Super Duper Video, a curated collection of Puppet-centric clips from films and TV shows interspersed with live puppet performances. One show only at SIFF Cinema Uptown at 7pm.
The Cinerama has announced its 70mm Film Festival schedule. Along with the usual suspects (Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus) are some oddities: Starman, Lifeforce, and Year of the Dragon). Which is cool. It begins September 9.
Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.
As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way.
The trend towards perpetual remakes and reboots is a growing pox upon Hollywood. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, someone taking another crack at Ben-Hur isn’t the worst idea in the world. Although William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar magnet (itself a remake) certainly has its gargantuan virtues, it also features more padding than any unimpeachable classic can be expected to bear.
While this new version tightens things up, it unfortunately suffers from both a curiously passive central character and the faith-based dramatic flattening that seems to be a hallmark of producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. (Jesus, a compellingly enigmatic, barely glimpsed agent of change in other versions of the story, is a bit of a screen hog here.) The plot still has enough juice to work, but only just.
[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”
What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.
What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh(1969) andThe Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.
The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.
“What kind of time machine is it that involves little more than covering the eyes? (To be precise, the hero was given some intravenous injections, too, but these served likewise to numb the senses, unraveling “the present and its certainties.”) My hunch is that covering the eyes and putting a record on may contain something of the time machine in and of itself.” The release of La Jetée’s soundtrack on a collector’s LP prompts Matthew H. Evans to a lovely exegesis of the bottomless philosophical meanings of memory in Marker’s half-hour short.
“Wise Blood sticks exceptionally close to the incidents and dialogue of its source. Its great faithfulness to O’Connor lies elsewhere, though: in the actors’ tactile realization of her characters, in the uncanny sense of being in a place that exists both in real time and outside of it, and in Huston’s determination to preserve the inexplicable mystery of Hazel Motes.” Stuart Klawans finds John Huston made just about every right directorial choice you could hope in the impossible task of adapting Flannery O’Connor to the screen—especially the proverbial 90% of the job that’s casting.
Framing Pictures is back and this month the discussion topics include Warren Oates (who stars in the newly rediscovered Private Property), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film Our Little Sister, the Kino Lorber Video box set Pioneers of African-American Cinema, Brazilian director Hector Babenco (who passed away this month), and more. Discussion begins on Friday, August 12 at 7pm at the screening room of Scarecrow Video on 5030 Roosevelt Way and it is free. More details at the official Facebook page.
The recently rediscovered and restored 1960 film Private Property, directed by Leslie Stevens and starring Warren Oates and Corey Allen as homicidal drifters who wander into the Beverly Hills home of an unhappy housewife, plays for a week at Grand Illusion.
Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) returns in a newly-restored edition featuring a new orchestral score composed and conducted by Joe Hisashi, who scored the great animated features of Studio Ghibli and the classic gangster films of Takeshi Kitano. It was announced to play SIFF last month but an older version was shown, so this is the first time Seattle audiences will be able to experience this new presentation. Plays matinees Saturday and Sunday only.
NWFF reopens (after a brief closure for renovations) for a screening this week of ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, an epic documentary about the inmates of an isolated mental institution in rural Zhaotong directed by Wang Bing. It plays on Wednesday, August 17, and then again on Thursday, August 25.
The documentary Tattoo Nation plays one show only on Thursday, August 18 at SIFF Cinema Uptown, presented by Bloodworks Northwest and timed to kick off Seattle’s Tattoo Expo. Director Eric Schwartz and renowned tattoo artist Jack Rudy are scheduled to attend and will hold a Q&A following the film.
This week’s free outdoor movie at Cal Anderson Park is Mel Brooks’ Star Wars spoof Spaceballs (1987). The screening begins at sunset on Friday, August 12, around 8:30pm, but viewers are encouraged to arrive early for a good seat, concessions, and entertainment by a DJ playing from 7pm.
From one perspective, director David Lowery seems like an unlikely choice for Disney to remake their partly animated 1977 musical fantasy Pete’s Dragon. An independent filmmaker in every sense of the term, Lowery came up through short films that encompassed the phantasmagorical and the practical with a sometimes dark imagination. His signature seemed to be a sensitivity to the tactile quality of his physical world, and to the texture and quality of light in his southwestern locales. Lowery explored his philosophy of filmmaking as a handmade art in Some Analog Lines (2005), a short that lingered on the tactile dimensions of creation, and that philosophy also guided A Catalog of Anticipations (2008), which could be an American Southern Gothic take on the netherworlds of the Quay brothers—as seen through the prism of memory and the primal imagination of a young girl spinning myth from found objects in her rural Texas landscape.
Yet from another perspective, this director is an ideal choice to remake the goofy, sunny adventure of a lonely boy and a forest dragon that no one else can see (except an old man played by Robert Redford).
Spy movies come preloaded with expectations, promising many scenes of shadowy people doing shadowy things. The historical thriller Anthropoidthankfully knows the trappings of its genre well, telling a compelling, unexpectedly moving story that’s rife with secret knocks, signal mirrors, and hastily decoded messages.
Based on true events (the ungainly mouthful of a title is explained early), the plot follows two soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan) who air-drop into Czechoslovakia in 1941 with orders to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the aptly nicknamed Butcher of Prague. As they make contact with the local resistance and attempt to shadow their target’s movements, they must also come to grips with the fact that their various plans are distinctly lacking in exit strategies.
Three adult sisters stand on a small-town road, gazing at the discharge from a nearby chimney. “Smoke from a crematorium is so old-fashioned,” one of them remarks—not as a put-down, but more as a dreamy observation. The ashes inside the chimney are what remains of their father, but the sense of detachment is understandable; he abandoned his family 15 years earlier to be with another woman and have another child. The sisters have come to his town for a dutiful funeral visit. As quickly as possible, they will return to their seaside city of Kamakura, where they share a house.
They will not get away without complications, which is how Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful new film (based on Akimi Yoshida’s award-winning graphic novel Umimachi Diary) takes flight.
Dear Lord, that voice. Any proper appreciation of Michael Ironside should begin with that voice, which fashions an entire Home Depot’s worth of gravel into something iconic and shivery, on-camera or off. (If DC doesn’t get him to reprise his animated role as Darkseid for live action, they’ll be making, well, yet another huge mistake.) Ironside’s supreme command of that infernal timbre makes him an invaluable character actor: Even when the movie is dreck—stand up and wave hello to the nice people, Highlander 2: The Quickening—Ironside can always be counted on to bring it. Just as he can be counted on to bring it to Portland this Saturday, for a screening of Scanners, with the Man Himself in attendance.
Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton debate and discuss the polarizing film The Neon Demon, the work of director Michael Cimino, and the unifying filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in the July 2016 edition of Framing Pictures from Scarecrow Video.
These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.
The August edition will take place on Friday, August 12 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.