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 Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Busting represents yet another casualty of the Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid syndrome. Telltale symptoms: a wisecracking, ultra-cool male duo (here substitute Elliott Gould and Robert Blake for Paul Newman and Robert Redford) at odds with a world they never made and cannot change, humor and mutual loyalty their only weapons against a graceless, corrupt environment. And it’s so seductive, this syndrome. It’s like being a bright-eyed whippersnapper of a kid set loose among a bunch of dull, dishonest grownups—and with a blood brother to boot! You can play at being a cop (as in Busting) or a robber (Butch Cassidy and The Sting)—makes no difference, as long as you do it with the style and verve that makes all those corrupt or rule-bound adults look like spoilsports. Shades of Huckleberry Finn and Nigger Jim, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook! Leslie Fiedler must be giggling in his beard: “Come back to the raft, Sundance honey!”
I recently watched two art films, one set in Hollywood, the other in Thailand, that take on meaning-of-life matters in strikingly different styles and stories. Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor both take the form of pilgrimage by sleepwalkers and dreamers, drifting rather than driven toward unexpected or desired revelations: Knight tracks the progress of Christian Bale’s pilgrim (call him the sick soul of Southern California) whose privileged life sucks when it comes to meaning or purpose. In Cemetery, we wander through a numinous Thai landscape in the company of a serene soul (Jenjira Pongpas) whose world is slowly permeated and perhaps shattered by revelations.
Weerasethakul’s unforced, visually mesmerizing excursion into metaphysics makes Knight of Cups look all the more pretentious, an airless exercise in aesthetic solipsism. Malick overloads Bale’s dream-quest with Portentous Signifiers, from allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, that 17th-century best-seller about the journey of an Everyman in search of his soul, to the Tarot card that features a knight-errant who symbolizes new opportunities and change, unless he’s upside down; then all positive bets are off. Then there’s a solemn prologue, all about a prince who went off on a quest for a legendary pearl, only to fall into a deep sleep along the way. His father the king—Malick the director?–continues to send out signs and guides to provoke epiphany. Malick means to cast his hero’s journey in a strong mythic light, but all this philosophical footnoting fails to provide illumination in Knight of Cups.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
Henry James took as one of his major themes the amusing—more often, tragic—encounters between representatives of the Old and New Worlds. His Americans were brash, uncomplicated, crudely ignorant, or gloriously innocent. He pitted them—sometimes on their own ground, sometimes overseas—against European complexity and wisdom that occasionally ran to decadence. If the New Worlders looked optimistically towards a utopian future, the denizens of the Old were the products of an immensely rich past, and layers upon layers of civilization provided them with a patina of cosmopolitan sophistication and worldliness that the parochial inhabitants of the new Eden could either admire or outrage, but never hope to equal. In a sense, Peter Bogdanovich is similarly caught between two worlds: as a director who admittedly admires the great filmmakers of the past—Ford, Hawks, Welles—his films have been, to a greater or lesser degree, hommages to classical direction, to genres made generic by Pantheon auteurs. But Bogdanovich also lives in the here and now, and his work must look to its future. For he can never really reattain the innocence of those early halcyon days of making movies: he knows too much, is too selfconscious to successfully recreate what the masters originally conceived. Howard Hawks made movies for the fun of it long before the French critics “discovered” and enshrined his films in learned exegesis—and the tone of director-critic Bogdanovich’s films, for me, has always been less fun, more learned.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
WOMEN AND THEIR SEXUALITY IN THE NEW FILM. By Joan Mellen. Horizon Press. 255 pages. $4.95 (in paperback).
Much of Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film has been previously printed in magazines ranging from Ms. to Film Quarterly. Although “substantially revised or enlarged upon and integrated within the thesis and concerns” of the current work, these articles-turned-chapters remain pretty much discrete essays, thematically united only by Mellen’s underlying (more accurately, overbearing) political persuasions. Catholic in her blanket denunciations of bourgeois anti-feminism in the cinema, she indicts Cuban and Chinese cinema, foreign and independent filmmakers, as well as that stock villain Hollywood, for “retrograde” contributions to contemporary film. Whether capitalist or socialist in impulse, current filmmakers, consciously or not, are out to portray women as subservient or sexually and spiritually alienated objects of male brutalization. But it’s the capitalists who are lambasted most by Mellen’s humorless forays into political aesthetics: “a capitalism in moral decline” prevents America from producing movies about self-sufficient liberated women while, in general, bourgeois society can only condition its women (and its filmmakers) deeper and deeper into social and sexual decadence—and any meaningful rapprochement between the sexes is doomed in “a capitalist era incapable of human relations.” Mellen’s manifesto lacks even the bite of fanaticism; it reads like some dry-as-dust tract a newly politicized, deadly serious Radcliffe senior might have written 40 years ago when most intellectuals worthy of the name were hailing Marx as messiah and communism as a universal panacea.
Mellen can’t see movies for her bourgeois-baiting: over and over she attempts to sterilize and desiccate richly conceived and executed films so as to fit them into her bell jar of bourgeois sins and excesses. If Hitchcock in his characteristically comic perversity has Jon Finch’s estranged wife in Frenzy (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) run a marriage counseling bureau with Good Housekeeping competence, and counterpoints her incantatory prayers against the rapist’s (Barry Foster’s) rhythmic “Lovely … Lovely …,” Mellen’s party line demands that complexity become simpleminded male chauvinist piggery: “In Frenzy the independent woman who runs her own business is raped and strangled so savagely that her eyes pop.” Not only does Mellen overindulge in these pithy little reductions toward (and beyond) absurdity—her humorlessness and critical didacticism deprive her of the ability to differentiate between better and lesser films. She criticizes all on one (political) plane, without taking note that one film is aesthetically superior to another. Thus, she lumps Tina Balser (Diary of a Mad Housewife) with Buñuel’s Séverine (Belle de jour) “as one version of the sexually typical modern woman.” In a tract, maybe, but not up there on the silver screen. No participant in Buñuel’s densely surreal mise-en-scène could possibly have anything in common with the pathetic caricature that is Frank Perry’s notion of an oppressed and frustrated modern woman. Just because each of these women is sexually incompatible with her mate is small cause to speak of a Frank Perry in the same breath with Luis Buñuel. But as long as Mellen can lockstep along spouting slogans, what possible relevance can the dynamics of real moving pictures have to her critical perspective? Read her exegesis of Up the Sandbox and you’ll be hard pressed for some time to uncover the minor fact that the film is a comedy (or means to be), so relentlessly does Mellen ignore jokes and satirical sendups in favor of dead-serious explication of the film’s antifeminist message—without at any time “placing” the film aesthetically.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
POPCORN VENUS: Women, Movies & the American Dream. By Marjorie Rosen. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. 416 Pages. $9.95.
Marjorie Rosen begins her fat (416 pages) study of women, movies and the American Dream by simultaneously putting down the cinema’s penchant for illusion and setting up the silver screen as a mirror in which “society’s porous [sic] face” may be exposed—thereby illustrating the main premise of Popcorn Venus, that movies can do anything and everything, but are admirable for practically nothing. Predictably, Rosen exhibits her critical credentials by nostalgia-tripping, sharing in a manner mostly maudlin her cherished cinematic memories and illusions, all couched in the confessional style of an ex–closet (or ex-prom) queen. But Rosen’s seen the light, so to speak, and has written a book which, more than anything else, seems to represent an attempt to exorcize all those seductive dreams spun out of movie-theater darkness by means of a holy war on behalf of cinematically wronged womankind.
Rosen’s weaponry includes a familiar array of selfrighteous clichés and stylistic ploys, the usual arsena1 of the writer who’s got a Cause but hasn’t a clue as to what constitutes good writing or critical fair play, and lacks sufficient knowledge of the enemy to even pitch a significant battle. Fundamentally, her pathetic (and self-aggrandizing) fallacy centers on the notion that Hollywood, movie moguls, men have engaged in an ongoing, conscious conspiracy against women since movies were first invented. Time after time, Rosen conjures up images of smoke-filled backrooms in which sinister plots were hatched by “Hollywood” to further subjugate or degrade women. That Hollywood (a place, not a person), at any given time, consisted of diverse elements, conforming and dissenting modes of direction, acting, even production, never seems to occur to her, in much the same way a freshman English student never seems to wonder about the real identity of that convenient scapegoat “Society.” Thus:
“For the men making movies in the twenties, ridicule (ergo, humor) shielded them and their masculine audiences from inevitable feminine demands for equality, social and otherwise. It squelched a treacherous usurping of their positions in the boudoirs and boardrooms, in the factories and on the campuses. Since the female uprising had to be put down, what a pleasant discovery that humor was at least as effective a method as pious moralizing.” (page 127)
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. By Molly Haskell. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 416 pages. $10.
Too often, one of the nicest things about having a Cause is that it provides cookie-cutter categorizations for almost every occasion. Human beings can be swiftly shuffled into suits of fascism, racism, male or female chauvinism, or whatever other convenient –ism lies at hand. Given the proper brand of cookie cutter, one can avoid confronting practically anything on its own terms—or in terms which stubbornly transcend or evade easy compartmentalization. The world becomes a neater place, less cluttered with complexities and nagging ambiguities when the brandished talisman of a single point of view sends all of disorderly reality scurrying into a series of carefully labeled cubbyholes.
Critics of the arts find cookie cutters particularly helpful in their craft. Art, you know, has that nasty habit of bursting the seams of the most rigorously contrived critical straitjackets—so much so that it’s still a sneaking suspicion of mine that the best response to a work of art is an eloquent silence. Film critics are not immune to the cookie-cutter syndrome—quite the contrary. The German film historian and theoretician Siegfried Kracauer was already drawing on a time-honored set of assumptions when he laced his tome on the cinema, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with variations on a monolithic theme, that being the motion picture camera’s absolute lust for reality and concomitant abhorrence of the fantastic or surreal, anything but the bare, unvarnished Truth. (So much for Méliès and his successors!) It didn’t require much of a critical leap to arrive at the notion that the masses, the salt of the earth, had cornered the market on reality and truth. Social consciousness, documentary verity, became the sine qua non of the great film for many commentators.
Whatever the theory, the best kind of critic approaches a film with an open mind, a willingness to allow its reality to resist the framework of his critical parameters. The bad critic loves his cookie cutter more than that which it seeks to contain and will ruthlessly shape and name the work under discussion to fit the Procrustean bed of his theory. Example: Several years ago, in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael attacked four films—Dirty Harry, The Cowboys, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange—for their unwarranted and immoral use of violence. Once Kael started wielding that cookie cutter of hers, whole arms and legs of cinematic reality were amputated, discarded as irrelevant; plot and character were distorted, reshaped so as to support her point of view.* On the other side of the fence, auteurists are not always exempt from such solipsism: nondirectorial contributions to a film may be lopped off and ignored so that the lineaments of a distinct and all-encompassing directorial personality may emerge in highest relief. God knows it’s an ongoing battle to approach anything or anyone in that state of vulnerability and receptiveness that permits, even invites, the Other to operate autonomously, to surprise us with its own unique reality. So much safer to go armed with a quiver full of preconceptions with which the most recalcitrant of realities may be “fixed with a formulated phrase.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
It’s come to be almost a given that American communal life is pervaded with violence, contained or at large. Those filmmakers who aren’t examining contemporary urban jungles from vantage points of nihilistic glee or despair turn to the American rural past to disprove any vestigial illusions we might have had about the noble savage or the pastoral innocent. From Mean Streets to Badlands, from Bad Company to Thieves like Us, from Payday to Buster and Billie, the lay of the land remains the same: brave new worlds gone wrong, gone brutal, gone back from innocence either by accident or in cold blood. America, the home of hillbilly and ghetto crazies, killers pure in heart, traveling city streets and country backroads, dwarfed by skyscrapers or the prairie, always caught, mostly dead—the last American heroes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Jan Haag is forever associated with my first conscious commitment to film and feminism. A decade or so ago, she and I spent much good time arguing passionately about The Pumpkin Eater and The Golden Notebook, the world of movies and the lives of women, with enough heat to permanently temper the directions we would take in the future. Jan was one of those multi-talented women—artist, actress, filmmaker, writer—who seemed permanently trapped and limited by the role of faculty wife, the interesting, but necessarily dilettantish, adjunct to her husband’s real profession. Fortunately, for herself and other women, Jan managed finally to “come out,” to emerge from that safe, and therefore stifling, cocoon into her own real professional world. It’s redundant to say it wasn’t an easy or even very direct route, but she eventually found where she wanted to be and what she wanted to do. After serving as an American Film Institute intern during the filming of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, she was appointed head of the Internship Program, and later became director of the AFI’s Independent Filmmaker Program.
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?
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
The Gambler is a curiously cerebral film in which the play of ideas (particularly literary assessments of the American experience) is transferred from the incestuous séance of the academic seminar to green baize gambling tables. There, those ideas are raised, not as ghosts, but as the highest stakes a man can wager. In California Split Robert Altman used gambling as an excuse for getting at the marginalia, the milieu, rather than as a metaphysical metaphor. Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter James Toback (a professor of English) are clearly after bigger fish—say, about the size of Moby Dick. For like Ahab, Reisz’s gambler bets on himself, his own power or will, to make some impression, to impose some meaning on … what? Perhaps that which resists will: fate or chance, the existential territory that refuses to be enfeoffed by the central “I-am.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Belle de jour is a circular film, curving its way surely and urbanely through fantasy, memory, and whatever reality one can distill from Buñuel’s surrealist solution. Probably the first bone of contention among critics of the film is how much reality, how much fantasy, and where each sector is located in this suave Buñuelian landscape. Depending on the reading, Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle de jour may have fantasized the whole of the film with no anchors in reality, she may be engaged in an act of exorcism which finally leads her to a kind of normality, or she may have ultimately ruptured the fragile barriers between her conscious life and the world that shapes itself out of the darkness behind her brain. Whether Buñuel is hypnotist or mesmerizer is moot; whether he has plunged his heroine into the darkness of insanity or caused a sunrise, a coming to terms with reality, is also open to question. Considering the bland banality of Séverine’s “reality,” itself a kind of madness which Buñuel has never ceased to send up with a discreet but nonetheless devastating charm, can acceptance of such a life be considered enlightenment? Her fantasies may be kinky but they’re certainly more fun, more richly devised and experienced, than anything that home, hearth, and hubby can provide. Perhaps what Buñuel has mesmerized Séverine (and us) into is a serenely crazy delight with the complete dissolution of distinctions like reality and fantasy into a rich warm soup blended of both. Buñuel knows what kind of spell movies may cast, and that we as viewers are not unlike Mme. Anaïs’ clients who buy the opportunity to frame and move and light their most private, cherished fantasies. Like Séverine, we turn from the peephole and exclaim in righteous disgust, “How can anyone sink so low!,” a half-smile of perverse fascination playing about our lips. We should not feel diminished for all that, for Buñuel’s discreet and amiable charm is all-encompassing; he subjects no one’s fetish to contempt, only to the goodnatured amusement of an old roué who is surprised by nothing, but is endlessly delighted with the conventions of bourgeois perversity. Consequently, we do not move from scene to scene in Belle de jour impelled by a sense of urgency that Séverine “get well” or go crazy with a vengeance; rather, we are satisfied with permission to participate in the picaresque sexual adventures she either fantasizes or realizes in her pilgrimage from neurotic innocence through exotic sin to that ambiguous endgame played within her mind.
A few short takes on SIFF offerings for the third weekend of the biggest, longest film festival in the United States.
PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2014; 98 minutes)
Fresh from Auschwitz and extreme facial reconstruction, Nelly returns to the noirish backstreets and bars of bombed-out Berlin, looking for what’s left of herself—and the husband whose memory helped her survive hell. Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognize this gaunt, shell-shocked stranger as his once-glamorous wife, but plots to use her in a scam to inherit wealth left by Nelly’s gassed relatives. Sure to turn up on year-end Ten Best lists, this brilliant film plumbs the nature of identity, post-WWII guilt and denial, death and resurrection—and showcases a shattering performance by Nina Hoss. – KAM
Sunday, May 31, 7:15pm, SIFF Uptown Theater
A few short takes on SIFF offerings on the debut weekend of the biggest, longest film festival in the United States.
SPY (Paul Feig, USA, 2015; 120 minutes)
Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) parlays Melissa McCarthy’s sly likeability and pratfalling genius into a dumb, feel-good spoof of the secret agent genre. When the jolly fat lady—an underappreciated computer-surveillance whiz, deskbound in a rodent-infested CIA basement—is suddenly thrust into the field, she sows useful, sporadically funny mayhem wherever she goes. Hailed by some folks as “feminist” comedy, Spy tickles our funny bone by targeting a heroine so armored up—by poundage and sweet denial—she’s proof against any humiliation. (With Jude Law, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale) – KAM
SIFF Opening Night, Thursday, May 14, 7pm, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall