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Kathleen Murphy

In Black & White: The Women (Pt 2)

[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)

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In Black & White: The Women (Pt 1)

[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 Orangefor 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.”

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Review: Buster and Billie

[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.

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Films and Feminism

[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.

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Film Review: The Visit

The Visit

Alfred Hitchcock liked to punch holes in the everyday, to find devouring swamps where maps showed solid ground. He channeled how desperately the child in every grown-up craves and fights for the familiar and explicable, putting his/her faith in people and places seemingly secure from ruptures in normalcy. When such a rupture occurs, as in The Birds, Tippi Hedren’s lacquered blonde, gang-raped by nightmare beaks, regresses to gibbering girl-child.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit focuses on a couple of actual children for whom life goes all Caligari-cattywampus. Working Hitchcockian elements of existential terror into a grotesque Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, Shyamalan has delivered a satisfyingly scary old-school hair-raiser that’s smart, funny, and deeply disturbing. Even as The Visit ruthlessly erodes faith in the reliability of family, it eats away at our trust in movie-frame space to contain some kind of rational design, its boundaries proof against sudden fracture.

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Film Review: ‘Listen to Me Marlon’ (1)

‘Listen to Me Marlon’

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?

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Review: The Gambler (2)

[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.”

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Belle de jour

[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.

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SIFFtings 2015 – Week Three

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

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SIFFtings 2015 – Opening Weekend

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

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The Salvation: Color of Old Blood

‘The Salvation’

In Dogme director Kristian Levring’s harrowing 2000 film The King Is Alive, a clutch of mismatched folk variously afflicted by modern-day angst are stranded in the great void of an African desert. For distraction, they decide to perform King Lear, Shakespeare’s wrenching tale of despair and madness. For these lost souls, it’s the narrative containment of the play’s spiritually corrosive content that looks like something they might hold on to.

The Salvation, Levring’s strangely numinous Danish take on the American western, displays a similar faith in the power of fiction, to show and contain chaos and horror, ceremonially, artfully. That power in some fashion saves us—like the ritual of consuming a god’s blood and body. The ambiguous salvation promised in the movie’s title may well refer to the good work art can do for us.

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Review: A Boy and His Dog

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

One plunges straight into unknown territory and action in A Boy and His Dog: Tatterdemalion figures dodging about in a wasteland, shooting at one another without apparent rhyme or reason. Some kind of reconnoitering dialogue—but no lips are seen to move and, visually, spatially, we find ourselves allied with … a boy and his dog? L.Q. Jones, writer and director of the film, gets down to business at once; before we know where we are, we have moved past the weird skirmish on desolate mudflats into the weirder realization that the conversation we have been puzzling over is a telepathic interchange between Vic—that’s the young man—and Blood, a shaggy mutt who has mutated light years beyond the Disneyesque canine to whom he bears some physical resemblance. Our suspension of disbelief about a dog who “talks” fast and dirty to his more-protégé-than-master is as immediate as our delight with Blood’s kinkily risqué sense of humor, his “doubletakes” and moués of disgust and exasperation with his sex-starved friend. Conversations between the two are shot with casual expertise and possess more bite and verve than most exchanges between humans in the film (witness the inane passages between Vic and the siren from “down under” he subsequently encounters), and Tim McIntire’s (Blood’s) delivery of irreverent repartee completes the visual identification of Blood as an authentically salty personality.

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Weird Tales, True Confession

Love, Death, and the Imagination in Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World

This appreciation was written for Film Comment magazine in 1996. Reflecting fond memories of SIFF film-going, this review also expressed my delight in discovering The Whole Wide World, a terrific movie by Dan Ireland, one of the founders of SIFF and an old friend. – KAM

Dan Ireland passed away on April 14, 2016, at the age of 57. We revive the piece in honor of his memory. – Editor

Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert E. Howard in ‘The Whole Wide World’

The citizens of Rain City have been passionate devotees of the Seattle International Film Festival for nigh on to two decades. Founded by Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald, a couple of optimistic entrepreneurs from Vancouver, B.C, SIFF bowed in 1976 with an l8-day slate of movies by the likes of Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, Luis Buñuel, Lina Wertmüller, Claude Lelouch, Claude Chabrol, Paul Verhoeven, Ken Russell, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Hot stuff in the days when the small but dedicated Seattle Film Society was practically the only reliable purveyor of cutting-edge foreign film north of San Francisco. Under the quiet rain, Seattleites queued up happily.

In the two decades that followed, the Ireland-Macdonald baby kept growing, until the Seattle fest now screens 250 films over a period of nearly a month. Though three or four other theaters are often in play as venues, the true heart of this film orgy is the cavernous 800-seat Egyptian Theater, which for the faithful becomes home away from home every May-June. Those spring evenings with the likes of Krzysztof Zanussi and Michael Powell are among my happiest cinematic memories.

This past June, I returned to the city where, in spite of mildew, I thrived for nearly a quarter-century; there was an American-independent competition for best first film, and I was one of four jurors. Among the more than a dozen films in contention were Jim McKay’s Girls Town, Sal Stabile’s Gravesend, and Alan Taylor’s Palookaville—all examples of the currently fertile genre of flavorful ‘hood movies, featuring ethnic tribes of argot-speaking boys or girls looking for a way to stay alive, make a living, and/or crash out of their mean streets. Rachel Reichman’s uncompromising Work fell into this category as well, only the neighborhood is rural New York, economic and spiritual dead end for a not especially beautiful or gifted girl left behind by her summer love, a college-bound black woman.

But The Whole Wide World, the film unanimously voted best of the bunch, is a very different kind of ‘hood movie, set in a couple of backwater Texas towns in the mid-Thirties, and the boy and girl who speak its special language break out mostly through their imaginations. That The Whole Wide World (to be released at Christmas by Sony Classics) should be a first film by old friend and fest co-founder Dan Ireland brought me full circle in my remembrance of things past, and made this latest of many Egyptian bacchanals the best kind of reunion.

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The Haunted Palace: Alain Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’

The couple face each other in an old-fashioned railway car set up in a 19th-century amusement park, the girl (Joan Fontaine) a sweet-faced blonde for whom he’s clearly the moon and the stars. The young man (Louis Jourdan) in elegant evening clothes is all charm, genuine enough for the moment, a roué enchanted by fresh innocence. Outside the window, painted landscapes from various countries flow by, long murals unwinding from one seemingly endless reel. Lisa’s only previous journeys have come courtesy of travel folders and her father’s reading, while Stefan’s a genial wastrel who’s never really transported by journeys, never deeply touched by experience. At the end of the line, when there are no more moving pictures, the rapt lovers decide to begin again, “to revisit the scenes of our youth.”

When and where did this magical train ride take place? Can we measure how long it took? Its point of departure and arrival?

The answers to these questions lie within the mystery of cinema. In this scene from Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), “real” time and space are subservient to the transformative power of a woman’s imagination. Already in the grave at this juncture in the film, Ophuls’ artist-heroine is surfing time, revisiting the scenes of her actual youth. Her resurrection is powered by the machinery of memory and art; her romantic narrative eventually generates Stefan’s (and our?) ultimate, soul-saving epiphany. A play of luminous light and sensuous shadow, Letter unreels out of a woman’s lifelong religious-aesthetic obsession. Her virtual reality, far richer and more compelling than those railway landscapes, hyperlinks with eternity.

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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round: David Lynch’s ‘Wild at Heart’

Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage

[Originally published in Film Comment, November-December 1990]

Back in the days when James Dean was only half a decade dead and Elvis Presley as many years famous, my best friend and I twice played hookey from high school to see Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. On screen in brooding black and white, Tennessee Williams’ surreal parable—originally Orpheus Descending—played like an overheated projection of our small-town dreams and nightmares. Poised to get on any road, college-bound in a few months, we imagined in our terrible innocence that it might be possible to beat our way clear of Our Town’s soul-killing dumbness and repression. For us, Lady Torrance (Anna Magnani, a dark and smoldering earth-mother of 52) and Valentine Xavier (the 36-year-old Marlon Brando, still beautiful) acted as something like outlaw parents, larger than life in their sexual authority. We understood that this beatnik Adam and Eve could not escape crucifixion by the community’s paternalistic thugs: Gardens, artists, blacks, holy sluts and studs—any life that moved and flourished outside the townfolk’s small ken—had to be burned down.

Anna Magnani and Marlon Brando in ‘The Fugitive Kind’

In the ashes of the film’s last conflagration, an old black “conjure man” uncovers Brando’s signature snakeskin jacket, the advertisement of his wild-child sexuality and the promise of future comebacks. It’s Carol Cutrere (Joanne Woodward), a lost soul once jailed as a “lewd vagrant,” who falls natural heir to Brando’s mantle: “Wild things leave skins behind…. They leave clean skins and teeth and white bones, and these are tokens passed from one to another so that the fugitive kind can follow their kind.” When this born-again blonde—a dirty sailor’s-cap pulled down over her unkempt hair, her eyes bleared by mascara and too much “jukin'”—slides into her mud-spattered white Jaguar and drives out of town at dawn, she’s blessed by more radiance than Lumet’s little corner of Hell has yet permitted. Her going is witnessed by a lively bird perched on an overarching branch in the foreground. No Blue Velvet bug is being scissored to death in the beak of that robin, if robin it is. For my best friend and me, lewd vagrants that we fancied ourselves to be, The Fugitive Kind was a ticket to ride, leaving our Lumberton far behind in the hope that life in a road movie might lead to Heaven.

Thirty years later comes Wild at Heart, a film about two cheerfully lewd vagrants for the Nineties, Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune. And director David Lynch, for whom a road movie is just another birth canal, has deliberately swaddled his hero in that familiar snakeskin jacket.* While the deeply romantic narrative of The Fugitive Kind labored to deliver a bird from its cage, Wild at Heart’s storyline takes the form of a snake whose tail ends up in its mouth.

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