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Robert Horton

Review: ‘Renoir’

Michel Bouquet as Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pretty pictures in a movie are sometimes dismissed as eye candy, the implication being that empty calories are no substitute for the sound nutrition of noble stories and thematic depth. That may be, although it would be difficult to deny the chocolate-box allure of Renoir, a lushly photographed gloss on a real-life moment in an artistic family.

The title identifies the family; the moment is 1915. As war rages on the other side of France, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), by now elderly and arthritic, paints at his sun-dappled estate on the Côte d’Azur. He employs a new model, Andrée (Christa Theret), a willful redhead who suits Renoir’s vision of glowing flesh and interior mystery.

Actually we have to take the mystery on faith, because Theret doesn’t suggest much beyond a handsome surface.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Welcome to Doe Bay’

Last year when the jury members for the Reel NW prize at the Seattle International Film Festival got together, we were strongly agreed on Megan Griffiths’s film Eden as our top pick. But it would’ve been a short meeting if we hadn’t at least kicked around our next-favorites, and so we did.

‘Welcome to Doe Bay’ by Daniel Thornton, Nesib CB Shamah, and Sarah Crowe

I made a next-best case for Welcome to Doe Bay, a cheerful, hang-loose account of the annual Doe Bay musical festival on Orcas Island. I have never attended this weekend music fest, having been born between the hippies and the retro-hippies and thus slightly out of key demographic range, but this documentary conveys some of the vibe of being there.

The movie’s built around performances from the Head and the Heart, Pickwick, Damien Jurado, Maldives, and Lemolo, among others. Lots of performers are Northwest-based, and the setting for the festival is one of those green waterside perches in the San Juans that seem designed to entice outsiders to seek out this part of the country. There’s also a lot of conversation and explanation from the organizers of the event, whose entrepreneurial spirit is somehow both laid-back and savvy. In some ways the D-I-Y approach of the Doe Bay organizers and participants, emphasizing smallness and specialness over huge commercial ambitions, is like a mirror of the Northwest film scene: Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission, don’t go gigantic, and don’t worry about looking weird.

Continue reading at KCTS9 Reel NW blog

Like Dracula: David Thomson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

No event exists without the process by which it is apprehended and understood. It is irrelevant and impossible to refer it to an absolute standard like realism because the means of measurement cannot be extricated from the observation. The relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred
David Thomson, Movie Man

The cinemas alone stayed open, twinkling with lights and turning the night into dark velvet. The cinema comes to life with dark—like Dracula.
—David Thomson, America in the Dark

It all begins in the dark. This is a point of crucial poetic and philosophic importance for David Thomson; he is obsessed with the fact that the delicate interplay of light and dark images on the screen, as produced by film and projector, is possible only after a room has been completely darkened and a shaft of light sent streaking across that room to illuminate the screen. Illumination occurs elsewhere. For the adolescent David Thomson, sitting in a cinema in South London, it strikes him while watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The realization that an intelligence guiding the camera was commenting on movie-viewing itself—a man sitting in the dark, watching people move in a box—was a stimulating experience, and Thomson works with the tangled mesh of art, life, observation, and participation in his three books Movie Man (1967), A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), and America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1977). The very private relationship he maintains with films, even when he expands his notions to include theories and pronouncements on all society, is passionate and idiosyncratic (need I add, subjective?). Thomson refuses to be pinned down or to wear a label; humanist, auteurist, structuralist, whateverist, he remains doggedly an individual, exploring his personal contact with movies—with prejudices, usually acknowledged, but always with a real determination to get at the roots of the power that has hold of him: cinema.

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Andrew Sarris in Seattle

Andrew Sarris came to Seattle for a talk on the night of March 12, 1987. My friend Tom Keogh and I had recently founded a non-profit organization dedicated to showing movie repertory, the Seattle Filmhouse, at just exactly the wrong moment to found such a thing. But before that enterprise fell apart, we managed to get Sarris out to talk about what a film critic was, and what film criticism was for, and—oh, whatever he wanted to talk about.

Andrew Sarris

His arrival at the airport, and his presence over the next couple of days, somehow embodied every idea I had about a vintage New Yorker. The rumpled trenchcoat, the garrulous manner, the roving intellect, the way food would not stay in his mouth as he talked over some urgent subject at dinner—all these things seemed exactly from that classic world of the East Coast, so juiced-up in comparison to our laid-back Northwest ways. (In leaving a restaurant, he grabbed someone else’s raincoat, which we had to return the next day—a mix-up discovered when Andrew found parole papers in the guy’s pocket.)

The day of his lecture, Tom and I schlepped him around to radio stations for publicity interviews, and I got worried. He looked pretty exhausted, though gracious in beating the drum on our behalf. Then came the talk in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and Sarris was on, gliding from autobiographical anecdote to concise recaps of the Kael rivalry to piercing quick takes on movies in release at that moment (the Oscars were imminent—Platoon was the odds-on favorite, but he said his favorite of the year was Eric Rohmer’s Summer). He could ramble, yes, but then yank back the train of thought with some arresting observation.

Continue  reading at Film Comment here. The transcript of Andrew Sarris’s appearance at the Seattle Filmhouse in 1987 is also at film comment in two parts, here and here.

House of Bamboo (The Cornfield #40)

CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.

However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.

That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.

Continue reading at The Crop Duster

Ride the High Country

This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton

John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950s—a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.

But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killed—he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed by… a motorcar.

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Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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Review: Quadrophenia

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

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Review: The Wanderers

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from “Grace” to a newscaster’s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegel’s original Body Snatchers: there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet them—and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that that’s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: “I once was lost, but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see”), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.

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Review: The Changeling

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Perhaps it’s looking back from the vantage point of a cinematically uninspiring summer that makes The Changeling seem such inoffensive fun. The qualities that The Changeling can boast—a clean, controlled look, a handful of chills, the feeling that the filmmakers are not about to shortchange us even if they’re not going to be particularly inventive—are exactly the qualities missing from the disappointing slew of first runs that turned up during June. I’ll disclose, too, a reason I was predisposed toward liking The Changeling: I’m in it. When music prof George C. Scott, having relocated in the Great Northwest after his wife and child were killed in an accident, begins his first day as lecturer, well, I’m one of his students. (Dead center, middle aisle, red flannel shirt—can’t miss me.) Anyway, if I were to write a negative review, I had the perfect lead-in: I happened to find myself in the men’s room at the same time as the director, Peter Medak, and—OK, the world may as well know—after he went to the bathroom he didn’t wash his hands. Writing this dump job I could glide into the observation that yeah, that’s the way he makes movies, too, and is The Changeling ever untidy…. Then Medak had to go and ruin my opening by making a slick, effective movie.

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Review: Coal Miner’s Daughter

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The very title of this film, and of the Loretta Lynn autobiography on which it is based—in turn, from a song of hers—underlines some of the tensions within the movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter rather than, say, The Loretta Lynn Story implies a reliance on another for purposes of self-identification. It also suggests a nostalgia for one’s roots: a longing for a home is very important in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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Review: The Big Red One

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

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Review: Can’t Stop the Music

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Disbelief. Right in the middle of the “Y.M.C.A.” number, which is right in the middle of Can’t Stop the Music, one feels one’s mouth actually hanging open. Good grief! Is this really happening? Members of a musical group called the Village People (who play streetwise dudes recruited to form an impromptu ensemble of singers/dancers) and Valerie Perrine (their manager) and Bruce Jenner (a tax lawyer with the hots for Perrine) sweep into a real Y.M.C.A. and begin performing all manner of athletic endeavor, all to a disco beat. And its all just awful. I don’t mean just the shots that you might be visualizing now—slowmotion splitscreen guys twirling through the air, a line of men diving sideways into a swimming pool à la Busby Berkeley. Those are there, all right, but we’re also treated to wildly awkward shots, like a group of nude guys horsing around in the showers (yup, you see everything down to their knees), or a whirlpool bath shot of Perrine’s breasts bobbing out of the water. These shots are even repeated during this montage—to Dolby music, mind. What makes them so jarringly out of place (uh—the shots, that is) is the uncertainty and the weirdness in the shifts from candy-flavored lightheartedness to an uncomfortable kind of wishful frankness. The problem with this sequence is the problem with the movie: Are we to view this pursuit of high spirits as sincere, or is the whole thing supposed to be a joke?

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