Catherine (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) put her aspirations on hold to manage the affairs of her famous artist father. Virginia (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) is a trust-fund baby spending her days on perpetual vacation. They are not what you would call likable. These best friends are privileged women who slip into defensive posture whenever they feel the glare of judgment upon them, which is often. They are ostensibly there for each other, yet so self-involved they can barely break out of their own little bubbles. Neither writer/director Alex Ross Perry nor his actresses attempt to soften these characters. Yet, surprisingly, we actually come to care for them—or at the very least worry about them.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Gravy Train offers unlimited opportunities for self-congratulation to everyone in front of or behind the camera, and in front of the screen as well. Within that dubious category of experience it’s quite a satisfying show, as amply testified to by the raucous audience reaction during the recent Harvard Exit engagement. Stacy Keach and Frederic Forrest turn in thoroughly researched performances as a pair of West Virginia rubes who reject a life of digging coal and head for the Big Town—the iconographically unbeatable Washington D.C.—to open a seafood restaurant called the Blue Grotto. How to finance it? Why, with their share of the take in a low-comedy armored-car heist—except that the slickeroo mastermind from a bigger town, New York, crosses them up and disappears with the money. The Dion brothers (Keach and Forrest) finish out the film escaping from the trap he’s set for them, running the doublecrosser to earth, and shooting it out with him in a building that’s being demolished about their ears.
“[Wyler] felt a case could be made for Fran, a woman who has waited for many years in a small mid-West town to go to Europe and have her fling, but Chatterton insists on the discord in Fran, the shrillness, what life has done to her. There’s always something slightly off about her clothes, about her hairstyle, so that Fran is always trying to be something that she is not, and failing. This must have hurt Chatterton deeply to play, because her whole acting style was based on the magic trick of convincingly playing something that she was not.” Dan Callahan finds in the brief but inimitable career of Ruth Chatterton a fine example of the war between authenticity and technique that can affect every actor—and the audience’s perceptions of her.
Of all the lies Hollywood has fostered, few are as harmful or repellant as the Lost Cause; but surveying Civil War films, Eileen Jones finds they’ve been the favored narrative almost unanimously, from Griffith to Keaton down—chronologically as well as aesthetically—to Redford. (No mention of Run of the Arrow, but her larger point still stands.) Via David Hudson.
“These films showed us that not all contemporary cinema is equally “contemporary.” Thousands of films are made around the world each year, but few of them truly take hold of important realities of our moment and reveal them to us in ways that resonate both universally and viscerally. Like all of their films of the past two decades, Two Days, One Night feels urgent and jolting because it holds a mirror up to life lived in our current global economic regime. And this time around, the picture they paint acquires a redoubled resonance in the ongoing aftermath of the financial crisis.” Despite its political message, Girish Shambu doesn’t paint the Dardennes’s Two Days, One Night as a simple-minded tract, instead praising the “traits of commercial, narrative-based genre cinema that [the film] quietly hides in plain sight.”
The final credit on Digging for Fire is a dedication to the late Paul Mazursky, the director of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman and other bittersweet comedies of manners. It can be presumptuous for a young filmmaker—here mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg—to invoke a predecessor. But in this case, fair enough. Digging for Fire has aspects that do indeed recall Mazursky’s movies: a sunburnt L.A. location, an undercurrent of satire directed at its floundering characters, and close attention to actors. Some pretentiousness, too, although in this case everything goes down pretty easily.
While Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt, of Touchy Feely) house-sit in a rambling mansion far above their pay grade (she’s a yoga instructor to a rich person who’s lent them the place for a while), they decide to spend a weekend apart.
I wonder whether Jason Schwartzman will have the career vault that Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr., had—whether years of being glorious in non-mainstream roles will suddenly make Hollywood (and the audience) decide that Yes, we always loved this actor and now we want to see more of him because he’s our guy, somehow, right at this moment. Perhaps you’re thinking Schwartzman is too odd and smart and non-traditional for a Pirates of the Caribbean or Iron Man, and he wouldn’t want that kind of thing anyway. Of course, you might have said that about Depp and Downey in the era of Dead Man and Air America.
7 Chinese Brothers is one of those movies that demonstrate Schwartzman’s unique value onscreen.
“This would make a great movie,” all of us have sighed while mind-directing a film from the novel we’re reading. But most of the time it wouldn’t really make a great movie, because a movie is a different animal entirely. Ten Thousand Saints conveys a passionate desire to capture a 2011 novel by Eleanor Henderson, but it looks like a quickly sketched version of something much, much larger. You want big canvas, you’ve got big canvas: We follow teenager Jude (Asa Butterfield, the kid from Hugo) from his turbulent life in small-town Vermont to the grungy streets of the East Village in the late 1980s. His drug-dealing adoptive father Les (Ethan Hawke) returns to the boy’s life to insure he has a place to crash in the city. The movie has hardcore music, a tragic death, and that laziest of plot devices, the unexpected pregnancy that changes everything.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Claude Chabrol’s self-consciously amused but ominous portrayals of the foibles of les petits bourgeois, aside from reminding us of the director’s acute filmic awareness indicate an atmosphere which borders on a kind of noir fantasy. Like Luis Buñuel (especially in his later films), Chabrol is ambiguous in the concessions he makes to reality. He may look, sometimes very closely, at real things—setting many of his scenes in a natural environment, even taking from a true account in a French newspaper his story of a man who murders his wife and his lover’s husband (not that there is anything unfamiliar about that tale)—but there is seldom anything “natural” about what we see. The sun is blindingly bright in some of the exteriors; the white mist on a lake behind Pierre and Lucienne flattens the space within the frame, as though they were standing in front of a blank canvas.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.
The spaghetti western was not an inherently political genre but in the 600+ Italo-Westerns that poured out in the decade or so of its brief reign, among the shamelessly derivative pictures cranked out to cash in on the boom started by Sergio Leone’s international hit A Fistful of Dollars are a handful that draw upon the currents of contemporary Italian and European cinema.
Sergio Sollima only directed three westerns but he brought political and allegorical elements to the familiar conventions.Face to Face (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray, DVD), his second western, is his most interesting. It is also one of the least known, having never received a legitimate American home video release in any format until now.
There are no imported Americans in this film. Gian Maria Volonté (the head villain in A Fistful of Dollars) takes the lead as Professor Brett Fletcher, a history teacher and intellectual who takes leave from his Eastern college (though only seen in interiors, it looks more European than American) and travels west for his health. Cuban-born Tomas Milian (who also starred in Sollima’s The Big Gundown) is the Mexican bandit Solomon ‘Beauregard’ Bennet, who enters the film in shackles. Fletcher’s kindness to the prisoner gives Bennet an opportunity to take him hostage and escape, but that same kindness leads to a tenuous truce that turns into friendship and later partnership.
Who was Gregory Ratoff and why isn’t he better known? A Hollywood fixture on screen, behind the camera, and in Los Angeles society for more than thirty years during the heyday of the Hollywood culture factory, this stocky, stout Russian émigré made his screen debut in the David O. Selznick production Symphony of Six Million (1932). He appeared in a handful of subsequent Selznick movies and soon became part of David O. Selznick’s inner circle as actor, director and gambling buddy. When he made the leap to directing, Selznick kept him busy turning out romantic comedies, action pictures, and other lightweight star vehicles.
As an actor, his Eastern European looks, squat nose and heavy accent made a natural at playing foreign villains, émigrés, and ethnic comic relief, and he embodied the cliché of the excitable, deal-making show biz impresario in films like What Price Hollywood? (1932), as the grammar-mangling studio producer trying to control the three ring circus of his film projects, and All About Eve (1950), as an anxious Broadway producer that you could almost see getting ulcers on the spot. As a director in his own right, his career is less distinctive—you won’t find grad students writing auteurist appreciations of his vision or see film retrospectives at the Lincoln Center—but he was prolific, making some thirty films in some twenty-five years all while he continued acting. He even tried his hand at producing.
Hong Kong was the Hollywood of East Asia through the sixties and seventies, cranking out romances, melodramas, costume pictures, and especially martial arts action films. In the 1980s, the familiar style got an adrenaline boost when Tsui Hark returned from American film school with new ideas on moviemaking, and other young directors eager to make their mark in the movies. But where directors like John Woo (The Killers), Corey Yuen (Saviour of the Soul), and Ringo Lam (Full Contact) were reinventing action movies and big screen spectacle with whooshing camerawork, dynamic editing, and action exploding all over the frame, Wong Kar-wai was casting the stars of those films in more intimate and impressionistic films. His debut film As Tears Go By (1988) turned the “heroic bloodshed” genre of Triad gangster movies into a young adult melodrama. Days of Being Wild (1990), his second feature and his first collaboration with his signature cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was Wong’s first masterpiece.
“De Sica was an expert on the subject of being disregarded. His characters are invisible persons made visible to us. The lack of what would be, to others, very small sums of money drives them to desperation; the loss of a bicycle can destroy a whole life. Harried by oppression and poverty, his protagonists fall into acts of moral compromise; the heroes must become that which their conscience condemns—a snitch, a bully and thief, a beggar. His people are too flawed to be the pitiable saints some repute them to be. The sadness here is not inevitable; it is a consequence of a social structure, a political pathos.” Michael Newton praises the humane understanding of people and the tragedies they find themselves in that’s the heart of every great De Sica film. (Not that the comedies are without their charms, “as long as we banish the thought that they were made by the same man who made Bicycle Thieves.”) Via Criterion.
The new issue of Screening the Past is out, with too much for me to have gone over thoroughly. Read and recommended, however, are Sally Jackson’s article on the filming of the 1896 Melbourne Cup, which finds a rivalry for control of the emerging Australian film market telegraphed in a seemingly innocuous crowd shot; Adrian Danks’s article on Buffalo Bill and the Indians’s myth-busting, which takes a closer look at Altman’s TV westerns than most; Sam Roggen weaving a series of metatextual allusions to explain the cinephile thrill he gets from a glance from Linda Darnell in Fallen Angel; and David Resha elucidating how Edith Head’s costume designs were sensitive to the nature of the film stock, and changed accordingly for black-and-white and color photography.
“His convoluted plots stuck to the letter of the Code, always finally coming down on the side of pure romance and happy marriage. But they wreaked havoc with its spirit—often with the PCA’s sanction. By the premiere of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Sturges was relentlessly mocking the PCA’s regulations. It’s likely, I think, that the PCA was for the most part in on the joke.” Matthew H. Bernstein, guest-blogging at David Bordwell’s place, analyzes the back-and-forth on The Lady Eve to show how open to negotiation and reassessment the Production Code could be with Sturges’s screwball comedies—and how little that mattered when the films hit the theaters and local censors had their say about what was permissible.
Last year I surveyed a number of Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive, which is predominantly a line of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs offering films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release. It also, however, releases a few choice Blu-rays each year. The difference between the formats is that the Blu-ray releases are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.
Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months (or more).
42nd Street (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Released in 1933 by Warner Bros., which specialized in snappy, fast-paced pictures with working class heroes and street smart characters, 42nd Street launched a series of great backstage musicals that featured lavish production numbers in a Broadway culture where the depression was a reality just offstage and the dancers were one flop away from the breadlines. Lloyd Bacon directs the dramatic sequences while dance choreographer Busby Berkeley took this opportunity to completely reimagine the musical production number for the possibilities of cinema. This film is as much Berkeley’s as Bacon’s.
Warner Baxter stars as the Broadway producing legend who lost everything on the market crash and puts everything on the line to create one last hit and Bebe Daniels is the leading lady who hooks a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee in leering old man mode) to finance the show. Ruby Keeler plays the chorus girl who takes over the leading role on opening night, a showbiz cliché that played out in real life: the film elevated Keeler and Dick Powell, who plays her boy-next-door co-star and love interest, to movie stardom.
One summer evening, while visiting the shooting set of Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, I found myself chatting with John Hurt, never a knockout in looks but always a terrific actor. The easy banter, the charming way he leaned to light my cigarette, the suggestive slide of his eyes—suddenly there was a spotlit place where an ordinary encounter had been heightened into the possibility of dramatic story and character. Then he was summoned by his director, to disappear from view behind a poolhouse door. As he emerged, pointing a gun, it was as though that door frame had been a camera wipe. Hurt was Other, lethal and hard, a slight man moving with the weight of his own history and the terror of the moment. Not sure how to convey how astonishing this alchemy was; Hurt had transubstantiated, shaping how he would be seen by the camera.
Acting is authentic mystery. Sure, you can say it’s just putting on a face and pretending to be somebody, something you’re not. A matter of craft, in the word’s positive and negative meanings. But beyond consummate liars and confidence men, there are those capable of unforgettable transformation. Such protean players look like magicians, able to access other selves, body and soul. Are they vampires—like Liv Ullmann’s hollowed-out actress in Persona? Do they dredge truth out of the dark well of their past, tap into collected memory, to illuminate characters that look and feel like us? And what’s the cost to the chameleon? Does it sear like flaying, or is there ecstasy in becoming wholly Other?