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Review: Shaolin Martial Arts

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Is the making of many potboilers a prime way to fashion an auteur? If so, a veritable Pantheon of those critics’ darlings must have matriculated by now at the humming factories of Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. Plenty of scope over there for that magical tension between a director’s “personality” and the miserable formulaic projects he keeps getting saddled with by his producers. I sample the product occasionally at Vancouver’s two chief outlets for Chinese movies, but my experience so far is that any new movie directed by, say, Lo Wei (and nine out of ten new Chinese movies do seem to have been directed by Lo Wei) resembles the last movie directed by Lo Wei only insofar as both are unimaginative and totally predictable hack jobs. English critic Tony Rayns, who has made “the labyrinth of Hong Kong cinema” his special province, performs prodigies of genre analysis, structuralism, semantic reading upon these movies; if only seeing them proved half as much fun as reading about them! Still, I’m grateful that Rayns steered me to Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (MTN 35), which combined genre conventions and sheer outrageousness in surprising ways. And having recently caught two-thirds of Chang Cheh’s epic martial-arts trilogy (Men from the Monastery / Heroes Two / Shao Lin Martial Arts), I can now share some of Rayns’s enthusiasm for this director.

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Review: Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

“My stepmother and I used to go to these … spiritualistic meetings, and get messages from …”—a little hand gesture—”yonder. They went into trances and said that Liszt was standing in back of me.” The 73-year-old reminisces about her childhood in California: receiving piano lessons so that she’d stop biting her nails; finding gratification playing at her stepmother’s séances “because ladies would come up afterwards and hold me in their arms.'” Antonia Brico’s articulate recollections always link music to love, and this documentary, inspired by her former student Judy Collins and put together by Jill Godmilow, communicates from start to finish Antonia’s enormous capacity for both music and love. Her life as a conductor really began in 1930. A Movietone newsreel presents her as she performed Dvorak’s D minor symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. A montage of newspaper headlines then illustrates the immense critical success the “American girl” enjoyed—although we learn that security in success would never grace her career. Back in the United States, despite resistance on the part of the male-dominated musical establishment, Antonia recounts how she managed to conduct two concerts in New York. More rave reviews. But the third never occurred because the male soloist poutishly declared that he would never sing under a female’s direction. Only slightly daunted, Brico’s next claim to fame was the founding of the Brico Symphony Orchestra, the all-women enterprise that made headlines for a couple of years and sparked a raging, publicity-studded controversy between Brico and Jose Iturbi on the relative competence of men and women musicians. A silly but endearing animated entr’acte invades the screen: “The Great Kettledrum Contest of 1937,” a grueling cartoon duel between a barrel-chested maestro and a demure young maestra. Guess who outplays whom.

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Review: The National Health

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

by Ken Eisler

The National Health, adapted by Peter Nichols from his own stage play, remains pure farce, but the form has undergone a marvelous cinematic sea-change. The characters, governed as before by Humours and idées fixes, enter, exit; doors slam on them—the doors, in this case, of death. The antics of these six quirky patients and their harried medical caretakers on the decaying Sir Stafford Cripps Ward, seen, let’s say, from the first balcony, must have struck audiences as grimly hilarious, though just a touch cold and detached, perhaps. But watching these hapless six on the big screen up there is another matter. You just try to distance yourself from them now.

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Doppler Effect at the Dunbar

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

by Ken Eisler

In the city of Vancouver, a foreign-film addict enjoys two major connections, the Pacific Cinémathèque (downtown) and the University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 series (on campus). Both sources dry up during the summer, but fortunately in mid-July along comes Don Barnes’ annual International Film Festival to stave off withdrawal symptoms.

The festival was held this year at the Dunbar Theatre with two-a-night features ranging from amusing pap like Berri’s Le Sex Shop to “political” cinema from Italy such as Lulu the Tool and Love and Anarchy. Political themes were more heavily represented than usual this summer, in fact, with Hearts and Minds treating U.S. involvement in Vietnam and two French-Canadian features set in the troubled province of Quebec.

I didn’t see Bingo, a fiction film about a group of young terrorists, but Michel Brault’s sober, powerful Les Ordres is one of three festival films I wouldn’t mind looking at again if they return for a regular run during the year.

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A Dalmatian Called Nixon

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The Doberman Gang was playing all over Mexico City when I was there last June—including the front-page headlines. Passing up Byron Chudnow’s three-year-old dog biscuit (retitled El Gran Asalto de los Doberman) was easy, but I did find myself drawn guiltily, morning after morning, into the details of a real-life Doberman gang whose hefty dark chieftain went by the name of “La Jitomata” (“The Tomato”).

Her gang, according to the papers, had racked up more than two years of robberies, assaults, stabbings and homicides using a Doberman called “Samson,” a Dalmatian called “Nixon,” two bulldogs (“La Troya,” “El Goliat”), and assorted other attack dogs to terrorize victims. The gang’s depredations ranged from the capital to Puebla and Acapulco. Now the police, with much selfcongratulation, had rounded up the malefactors; and each day’s newspaper brought new revelations regarding the size of the gang and the Dickensian nature of its internal affairs. “Le Jitomara,” it seemed, was given to recruiting extremely young boys, orphans, seducing them, legally adopting them, and sending them out into a life of crime. Hence, I suppose, the gang’s own sobriquet: “La Banda del Pañal” (“The Diaper Gang”).

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Hell Italian Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Deus ex machina, in the form of a lawyer with clout, at long last yanks a broken Alberto Sordi up and out of the hellish Italian prison system. Then we get the usual disclaimer: “Any resemblance, etc., etc…. ” But this grueling 90-minute total immersion in the system’s casual dehumanization rings entirely too true to be so easily dismissed.

Which is not, however, to dismiss Loy’s movie as mere agit-prop; far from it. Detained Pending Trial is a complex, fully fledged work of art.

I saw it in a jampacked 24-cent, triple-feature Mexican moviehouse. The audience began by laughing raucously and appreciatively at every new discomfiture suffered by the Sordi character. Well, why not? Here’s this comfortably upper-middle-class dude, after all, a professional, a land-surveyor: and he’s a bit of a, well, let’s face it, a … tool. We meet him in Sweden, on a terrace, all dressed up and handing drinks around to these middle-aged stuffed-shirt clients. He smiles, grins, bows—the works. A real toady. Sort of well-liked by the workers on his crew, mind you; but there’s a trace of contempt blended with their affection.

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Review: ‘Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Brian Clemens did some of the funniest, spiffiest episodes of the delightful British TV series The Avengers. In this first feature film, an intermittently serious, Hammer-produced exploration of horror flick conventions, he tracks and pans through the woods, around carefully lit and furnished interiors, like an old pro. Mise-wise, it’s all really more than satisfactory; but whaddaya do when it’s sendup time and you look around and you got no ineffable Lady Peel (Diana Rigg), no stylish John Steed (Patrick MacNee)—just this chesty, übermenschy blond leading man (Horst Janson) and this chesty brunette love interest (Caroline Munro), neither of them exactly lighter-than-air in the comedy department? Well, you win a few and you lose a few, is what you do. You put your Aryan master swordsman on top of a hill and have him attacked by a small mob of angry, lumpen townspeople; have him kill everybody in no time flat, doing lots of fancy foot- and swordwork; have him grin and flash gay Douglas Fairbanks looks at Miss Munro, stationed at the bottom of the hill, laughing maniacally, during the carnage. Throw her a wink. It’s a lead balloon. But then, eclectic British technician that you are, you decide to stage another action scene, in the middle of a horror movie, as an irreverent homage not to the horror genre itself, but to Westerns. And for some reason, it works.

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Review: ‘Blanche’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

I think I would find Borowczyk’s feature films insupportable if they weren’t so much fun. Come to think of it, I did find Goto, île d’amour insupportable: I walked out on it. Having recently seen and greatly enjoyed Blanche (1971), it seems to me in retrospect that all I really needed to enjoy Goto equally well was a cocked eyebrow and a few grains of salt. This guy used to make cartoons after all, right? OK, he made Animated Films Shot Through With Lacerating Black Humor. Yeah, like: cartoons.

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Review: La Via Revee

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

by Ken Eisler

Isabelle drives unhurriedly through the morning streets of Montreal in her little red Volkswagen. Along the way we glimpse women looking out of windows, kids playing—vivid ephemeral street scenes. This engrossing flow of images is interrupted only once: to accommodate an insert of some people punching in at a time clock. Now Isabelle arrives at her place of work and punches in too … a bit late. She’s in a place where people make movies. Another flowing sequence shows employees at work here: a woman bent over a table, laboriously crayonning in the empty space of an animation cell; a paunchy English-speaking executive being petulant and overbearing with a director. Isabelle heads straight for the ladies’ john. With a friendly quick smile, she joins another woman in front of the big mirror and they stand side by side busying themselves with their appearance. The woman’s face appears set, deadpan, studiedly oblivious. Oh, Christ, you think. Alienation City. But it’s the other woman, surprisingly, who at long last breaks the silence, with a “hen-talk” ·remark that is addressed, however, not directly to Isabelle but at her image in the mirror, and that also bears more than a trace of hostility. “You don’t need that paint,” she rasps. Isabelle replies in feminine kind, but without the hostility. “I love your necklace,” she exclaims, leaning over; and at this a broad smile breaks through the other woman’s mask. “I made it myself,” she says proudly, turning directly to Isabelle. The two exit together, talking, and walk down the corridor.

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Review: Between Friends

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

by Ken Eisler

One thing about Canadian director Don Shebib, he gives an actor room to stretch out. Too much room, some viewers feel. Shebib is obviously willing to risk viewers’ impatience with yet another long take, à la Cassavetes, of his anti-heroic “boys” horsing around, yet another closeup of some guy struggling to put his inchoate feelings into words. When these indulgences fail, you get one of those arid well-whadda-you-wanna-do-tonight-Marty? patches. But when they work, you may get a passage as moving as Joey’s (Paul Bradley’s) heartfelt, tipsily self-revealing speech at his own wedding in Goin’ down the Road.

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Review: Matatabi

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

by Ken Eisler

I felt a funny kind of letdown when The Wanderers ended, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the ending. After a fight, the film’s young protagonist Genta slips and tumbles down a long steep bank: a fall that begins comically but becomes by turns frightening because of an accelerating sense of the loss of control, and then, like Marie Dubois’ long snowy death fall in Shoot the Piano Player, strangely lyrical. Finally, with a thud, Genta’s head hits a rock: freezeframe, full stop. Up above, Genta’s pal Mokutaro slows down, turns around, and walks back along the road to the spot where he took off running, one arm bloodily slashed, the snarling, shouting, sword-wielding Genta in hot pursuit. Mokutaro looks around for his friend; calls his name repeatedly; shrugs. “Well,” he says aloud, “he must be taking a shit somewhere,” and the camera starts backing away from him, last of the three hapless young wanderers, alone in a wide screen landscape.

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Review: Tenant

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
Macbeth

In The Tenant Roman Polanski explores again the psychic terrain of guilt, dread, paranoia, fears of sexual inadequacy and hysteria he made so familiar in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown. Much of The Tenant bears residual traces of Repulsion‘s treatment of insanity and the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary’s Baby. The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering. A bit of lace drifting in the breeze becomes an omen of dread; sidelong glances from normal faces acquire an insidious grotesqueness. Is there in fact a conspiracy against M. Trelkovsky (Tchaikovsky? Porchovsky?—everyone seems to pronounce it differently), the new young tenant who takes over the apartment of Mlle. Schoul, the victim of a suicide leap from her window? Are the other tenants in league to drive T. into jumping as well? What about the burglary of his apartment? The human tooth he finds hidden in a hole in the wall plugged by cotton? The Egyptian postcard? The hieroglyphics in the toilet? Are they all elements of a vast conspiracy to drive him mad?

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Ruggles of Red Gap: The Social Mythos of Leo McCarey

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

It is important in any extended discussion of Leo McCarey’s cinema to emphasize the significance of context in determining the specific value of certain motifs. In Duck Soup we are little inclined to condemn Rufus T. Firefly when he machine-guns his own troops; this disinclination is a function of the film’s artificial and farcical style. In My Son John, on the other hand, John Jefferson is machine-gunned to death gangland fashion, and we are clearly inclined to read the scene “realistically”: the act of murder is here to be condemned, as it was not in Duck Soup. I raise the issue because there is a tendency when dealing with McCarey to mistake metaphor for meaning—to assume, for example, that McCarey’s primary concern in Going My Way is to promote Catholicism. We could hardly describe the film as anti-Catholic, but it seems clear that the parish of St. Dominic serves a metaphoric function. It is a microcosmic “community,” a civilization in little, and McCarey uses it to make far more general and far more profound assertions about the nature of social freedom and social responsibility than would have been possible had the film been mere propaganda for a particular religious ideology.

Something similar, it seems to me, needs to be said about McCarey’s use of political metaphors. McCarey is frequently characterized as a defender of bourgeois/capitalist American democracy. And, to the extent that “democracy” serves as a powerful metaphor for social tolerance and flexibility, this is certainly true. But “America,” as a metaphoric social entity, is hardly immune in McCarey from those dangers of rigidity and complacency which beset and threaten St. Dominic’s (and hence civilization) in Going My Way. Witness, for example, Putting Pants on Philip, where Piedmont Mumblethunder’s overdeveloped sense of bourgeois self-importance is called into question by the European vitality of young Philip. Or consider the conflict between free enterprise and Christian charity in Good Sam: bourgeois capitalism (in the person of the owner of the department store where Sam works) hardly escapes unscathed. Indeed, as evidenced by Six of a Kind, The Milky Way, and Make Way for Tomorrow, the economic aspect of American democracy is generally presented by McCarey as being rigidly dedicated to the service of self-interest, and self-interest of any sort is anathema in McCarey when it conflicts with the rights and well-being of others. McCarey is thus for individuals; but individuals inevitably have social and familial responsibilities which disallow mere self-indulgence. Indeed, McCarey’s characters are often most truly themselves when they willingly put their selves at hazard (as in Once upon a Honeymoon).

All of which is relevant to Ruggles of Red Gap because Ruggles is arguably McCarey’s most personal, most social, and most idealistic film. Put another way, in Ruggles of Red Gap McCarey explores the relationship between personality and society, and does so in an idealistic literary context which asserts the essential identity of personal and social imperatives.

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Houses, Phones and Cars: Domestic Spaces in Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment”

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.

James Mason and Joan Bennett pose

While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—The Reckless Moment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.

By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.

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Getting What You Need: Changing Surrealist Vision in Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” “Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie,” and “That Obscure Object Of Desire”

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

by Julie Ahrens

Seeing ants crawl from a hole in a man’s hand, we don’t need to ask, “Is it a dream or is it real?” It’s surreal. That one creepy, iconic image is the essence of surrealism.

In 1928 Luis Buñuel, the man with the razor, opened his viewers’ eyes to middle-class amorality, complacency and sexual frustration with his first film, Un Chien Andalou. This film, made at the height of the Surrealist movement in France with Salvador Dalí­, is representative of surrealism in its overt use of dreamlike images – and ants – presented without rational order or meaning. Born out of 19th-century Romanticism and influenced by Freud’s investigations into subconscious mental processes, the images of surrealist art were intended to pass directly from the subconscious mind of the artist to that of the viewer with a minimum of logical reasoning. Un Chien Andalou consists wholly of bizarre, unreal images, and the viewer is continually aware of being suspended in a dream landscape.

The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"
The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel’s 1972 attack on the inane privileged classes, does not appear as purely surrealistic as his first film. Here Buñuel divides the world into the “reality” of six friends’ attempt to have dinner together, and the twisted tales of dreams and dreams-within-dreams that interrupt and underlie their outward social niceties. Although we are not quite able to distinguish where it lies, we know there is a dividing line between the dream and the reality in The Discreet Charm. This barrier is crossed every time a character begins a story of a dream he has had, or is suddenly awakened to reveal that a preceding sequence was actually a dream. Buñuel punctuates the outwardly placid, yet inwardly violent, bourgeois aims with timeless shots of the group walking along a road. At first there seem to be clear divisions between fantasy and reality, yet it finally becomes apparent that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.

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