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Sean Axmaker

“Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader”: On the Oscar Run

Tis the season. Oscar bait season, that is, when the studios line up the major releases jockeying for spots on Top Ten lists and critics groups awards on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Unlike the superhero movies and fantasy blockbusters and comedy vehicles that are crammed into thousands of theaters in a blanket release covering the entire country, these are often launched in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expanded into more theaters and more cities over the next couple of months (the way most movies were released, back before the era of the blockbuster changed releasing patterns forever). But to get on those lists, they are press screened to critics in major cities. Two of those films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader, have just gotten their Oscar-consideration releases (to the best of my understanding, they need to have at least a week-long theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in the 2008 calendar to qualify for an Academy Award). These films have all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary sources, “serious” themes, credentialed casts and the kinds of directors that value words over cinematic expression. While they have been racked up Golden Globe nominations, they have been conspicuously absent from major critics lists and critics groups’ awards. At their best, they are thoughtful and engaging. At their worst, they are self-important, self-conscious and stupefying.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Revolutionary Road"

Revolutionary Road is at the top (or, more accurately, the bottom) of the list of offenders. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs the adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel with such exacting (and unimaginative) control that he sucks the air from the world, like vacuum sealing it in plastic and putting it on display. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle class couple in the late fifties, with a carefulness that nudges out all possibility of the unexpected. These are performances – and lives – lived in quotation marks. Roger Deakins (arguably the most talented cinematographer working in American cinema today) shoots the film with a perfection that is, like the performances, too well groomed. And that I lay at the feet of Mendes, whose control smothers the film in weighty importance and foreshadows every narrative development with the cinematic equivalent of a brick through a window.

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The Essential DVD Debuts of 2008

I’ve done the best DVD releases of the year in some incarnation or another for years. This one is a little different. This is not a celebration of the most impressive special editions, the most stunning transfers or the best supplements. This is my list of what I consider the essential movies that debut on DVD — from long awaited classics to rare cult discoveries — done up right in worthy editions. That doesn’t mean great supplements (though those are always appreciated) but worthy transfers and fine mastering.

Forgive the U.S.-centric spin. Some of these may have been released in other countries with other region codes, but not everyone has an open-code, region free, PAL-converting DVD player. And those of us who do don’t always keep on the releases in other regions. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s coming out here.

This is a decidedly subjective list, influenced by personal taste, excitement of discovery (or rediscovery) and rarity. While films that have been previously available on VHS or are periodically revived in retrospectives or cable showings are still valued DVD releases, the release of something unavailable in any form is an even greater cause for celebration, and that is reflected in my subjective hierarchy.

#1 – The Films Of Budd Boetticher

The cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher with star/producer Randolph Scott and writer Burt Kennedy include some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties — or ever, for that matter. Until this year, that was a contention that many folks had to take on faith, as these films were difficult to see at best. Apart from Seven Men From Now, released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount, none of these collaborations were on DVD and the selection arbitrarily released on VHS years ago were part of a failed experiment in low-cost/low-quality tapes from Goodtimes, whose tapes were recorded in the substandard EP (extended play) mode. And of course, the two widescreen films in the cycle were only ever seen on TV or video in pan-&-scan versions, which ill-served the integrity of Boetticher’s films. Has any major American director been treated with such shabby neglect on home video as Budd Boetticher?

The five-disc set The Films of Budd Boetticher from Sony Pictures Home Video more than doubles the number of Boetticher films on DVD (before the release of this box set, only four of his 35 features were available, and only a few more on VHS and laserdisc), but more importantly, it finally gives this American director his due with beautiful editions of his essential films, especially his definitive The Tall T (mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) and his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, all tightly scripted by Kennedy with a lyrical approach of dialogue, all set in an increasingly abstract nowhereland of the desert. The offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown are minor companion pieces with a few major pleasures (among them a beautiful turn by a young L.Q. Jones as an amiable young cowpoke in Buchanan). In all of them, Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters: a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. The same can be said for Boetticher’s direction: every shot of his best films is austere and pared to the essentials, yet directed with an ease that made them live and breath. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films and Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker.

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Will Eisner, Frank Miller and “The Spirit”

“… I piped up with my own theories about the relationship between comic books and movies. Without realizing it, I’d essentially characterized comics as the poor man’s film, thinking each panel the equivalent of a frozen frame of celluloid. Will [Eisner] ripped me to pieces…. What counts, he told me, is panel content, the function of the individual panel to advance the story. Every panel must have story content, he insisted, despite my protests. If you want to make movies, go make movies. …

“(W)hat Will argued is at the very heart of the enduring appeal of The Spirit. And it’s one reason why, to this day, The Spirit remains not only a stunning body of work, but an essential lesson in what comics are, and what they can do.”

– Frank Miller, 2000, recalling a conversation with Will Eisner, in his introduction to The Spirit Archives Volume 4

Will Eisner's "The Spirit"
Will Eisner's "The Spirit"

Will Eisner was one of the most revered and respected creators in the history of comics. An innovator all his life, he is credited with coining the term “graphic novel” in the seventies for his landmark A Contract with God. The Spirit, which he created in 1940 and wrote/drew/supervised through the early 1950s, is his masterpiece, a mix of superhero comic, pulp fiction crime story and witty tales of the city, told in a deft and lightfingered storytelling style and drawn with a style bursting with color and energy and personality. He was as a short story writer in the medium of graphic storytelling, with cinematic visual style adapted to the graphic snapshot of sequential art. It’s the art of his work more than the durability of his character that made his stories so essential and inimitable.

Frank Miller was a fan, student and (later) friend of Eisner who incorporated the lessons of the master into his increasing stylized, post-noir pulp style, first exhibited in his hard, austere Daredevil comics and, to some degree, epitomized in the Sin City graphic novels and subsequent film, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez. He makes his solo debut with his adaptation of The Spirit, a labor of love that he took on because he didn’t want to see some director screw it up.

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In Praise of “Doubt” in the Certainty of Cinema

With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.

Meryl Streep has her certainty
Meryl Streep has her certainty

While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.

Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much – racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality – without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.

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“Un Conte De Noel” (“A Christmas Tale”): The Messy Joys of Family

“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)

In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.

Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve
Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve: Midnight Mass

The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).

“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years – they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.

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Interview: Kevin Smith and Zack and Miri

When I first interviewed Kevin Smith a few years ago, during his press tour for Jersey Girl, I apparently caught him on a bad day. He was tired, distracted, stretched out on a hotel couch and chain smoking with an oblivious reflex. You don’t really expect a connection when you interview a filmmaker or a screenwriter or an actor – it’s usually just another in a long, long line of obligatory promotional obligations for the artist. The best you can hope for is to interest them with a challenging question or a perceptive remark. I can’t say I came through with either when Smith came back through Seattle to promote Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but he was far more engaged in this return engagement interview. It was like kicking back with a guy you just met at a party, relaxed and laid back and without pressure. And he certainly didn’t edit himself for print. His language is what you might call colorful, dotted so offhandedly and naturally with George Carlin’s seven dirty words that you hardly notice it. Until you start transcribing. I published an abbreviated version for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and scrubbed much of that language out of the piece. It’s intact in this full version of the interview, which was conducted a couple of weeks before the release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Did you go to your tenth annual high school reunion?

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks cast their porno
Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks cast their porno

We didn’t have a tenth but I went to my fifteenth and just this summer they had a twentieth and I went to my twentieth, which they held on a boat. A three-hour tour, kind of like Gilligan’s Island, so that was a little nerve wracking. And it’s the kind of thing where you can’t get off the boat. If you’re like, “This sucks, I want to go home,” you’re stuck, you’re on the boat. Thankfully, it was kind of cool. I didn’t have any adversarial relationships in high school, there was nobody that I was like, “I can’t wait to see this motherfucker and tell him what an idiot he is.” I’m pretty cool with everybody and I stayed in Jersey for years after Clerks so I saw a lot of these people anyway, mostly every month.

So your reunion experience didn’t inspire you to make your own home porno.

No, it didn’t push me over the top. I had the other career going on. I mean, I can never really think about porn in regards to myself because I would just never want to see myself in a porno.

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Budd Boetticher: A DVD Wish List

The release of The Films of Budd Boetticher finally brings five essential films by the director to DVD. Along with Paramount’s release of Seven Men From Now a few years ago, his career-defining “Ranown Cycle,” the six westerns starring Randolph Scott that made Boetticher’s reputation, is now available on home video. It’s a triumph, but it’s only a start. The five films in the box set more than double the amount of films by Boetticher available on DVD. Boetticher’s first western, the 1951 The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy, and his 1953 The Man From the Alamo with Glenn Ford, arguably the best film of his Universal period, are available in the Universal budget release Classic Western Round-Up Volume 2 (why didn’t they draw a couple of Boetticher’s other Universal westerns to fill out of the set and make it an unnamed tribute to the director?). And then there’s Behind Locked Doors, a genuine B movie whose reputation is based largely on the appearance of cult actor Tor Johnson as a crazed wrestler in an insane asylum. As a footnote, The Fleet That Came To Stay, a combat documentary short that Boetticher made while serving in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during World War II, is available on various DVD anthologies, including the VCI release Combat Camera: The Pacific.

That’s nine features in a career that spans 35-some features and numerous television productions.

Here’s a checklist of ten Boetticher films that I would lobby for DVD release:

Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"
Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"

The Missing Juror (1944) / Escape in the Fog (1945)

These two films from Boetticher’s apprenticeship in the Columbia B movie factory are nothing like the films that made his reputation, but they are engaging and stylish thrillers that make the most of his budgetary limitations. Each runs barely over an hour. Together, they would make an engaging double feature disc. Languishing somewhere in the vaults of Sony, they have never been released on home video but do sometimes appear on TV.

The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

The first Budd Boetticher movie. Literally. His previous films were all credited to Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name. With this semi-autobiographical film, about a brash American in Mexico who befriends and trains under a legendary bullfighter, he used the name we all know him by: Budd Boetticher. The film, produced by John Wayne, earned Boetticher his only Oscar nomination (for “Best Original Story”) and raised his stature in the industry, but the film released in 1951 was not the film he intended; under the guidance of John Ford, the film was cut down to under 90 minutes to get a release. In 1987, the film was restored to its original 124-minute running time and shown at film festivals and subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc. A special edition featuring both the release version and the restored Director’s Cut is long overdue.

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Burt Kennedy: Writing Broadway in Arizona

Burt Kennedy has a long resume as a director, with such credits to his name as The Rounders, Welcome to Hard Times and Support Your Local Gunfighter.  But he started his film career as a screenwriter under contract to John Wayne and made his reputation with four brilliant westerns that Budd Boetticher directed and Randolph Scott starred in: Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. I had been trying to get an interview with Kennedy for a long time. All it took, it turns out, was a little help from Budd Boetticher. During my second trip to interview the Boetticher I mentioned my problem in connecting with Kennedy. He simply called him up set up a meeting for later that day, and I raced to catch Kennedy in his home in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles before he left that evening for a rodeo (seriously). I eventually interviewed Kennedy twice, first in 1989 and then again in1994. In these excerpts he talks about his origins and discusses his work with Boetticher beginning with Seven Men From Now, Kennedy’s first produced script. He died in 2001.

I want to ask about your background. I read, in old publicity reports, that you were the son of vaudevillians.

Burt Kennedy in 1989. A poster for his film "Support Your Local Gunfighter" is on the wall. Photo by Sean Axmaker

Yeah, my mom and dad were a headline act in vaudeville for 20 years, the Keith-Orpheum circuit. They were dancers. As a matter of fact, they danced in the Webber-Field show in New York in 1911 and Vernon and Irene Castle were in the chorus. And of course Vernon and Irene Castle did dances later on that people could do. My folks didn’t, my folks were just real good dancers, but that’s why they didn’t have the popularity that Vernon and Irene Castle did. They had a great act. And I was born in a trunk.

Born on the road?

Yeah. I don’t really remember much of it. I remember some because I worked in the act when I was about 5 and I think I was a has-been at 7. Vaudeville didn’t just die out, vaudeville just died overnight. I mean radio is kind of still around, you know, it had its heyday and then it went gradually downhill, but it’s still there. But not vaudeville. One day vaudeville was going full bore and the next day pictures took over and all these acts were out of business.

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Budd Boetticher: A Career

They can lick you (which they cant) or they can fire you, and once you know that youre not afraid of anybody. – Budd Boetticher on producers, 1988 interview

Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. The 20 year old kid from a wealthy family decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight and wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a Hollywood film. That’s the short version.

Budd Boetticher working his horses in Ramona, CA, 1992. Photo by Sean Axmaker

“I grew up rich, spoiled, and arrogant,” he joked in a 1992 interview. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.” This sports-mad son of a successful Illinois hardware magnate had planed for himself a career in athletics and threw himself into boxing, track, and football. At Ohio State, a knee injury (his second on the gridiron) sidelined him and he took a year off to recover. His plan was a long tour of South America, but his trip stopped short when he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.

When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and moved among the best social circles, found out he braving the bulls in South of the border rings, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting adviser on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired onto Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, teaching Tyrone Power his craft and advising screenwriter Jo Swerling on details of bulls and bullfighting. More important to his calling and his career was the crash course he got in moviemaking. In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher gave credit to editor Barbara McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner. The bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them.

Boetticher worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia. His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a 60 minute Boston Blackie mystery destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. He signed it Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name.

Those were the days when Hollywood apprenticed its own, promoting from the ranks, and Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons then: how to stay on a 12 day schedule, how to deal handle the front office, how to hold your authority a crew much older and more experienced than you. Most of these films are unavailable, but the few I managed to see almost 20 years ago were entertaining, lean, a little rugged, and better than one would expect. My memories of Escape in the Fog, for instance, are of the exterior fog that envelopes the night in a blanket. It creates a nice mood of mystery while masking the limitations of his B movie sets. Following his Columbia apprenticeship he spent a few years in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy (where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers), he returned to Hollywood to find himself back in the B movie rut.

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Budd Boetticher and the Ranown Cycle: “What a director is supposed to do”

My first contact with Budd Boetticher was in 1987. I was a graduate student in film studies at the University of Oregon and I thought I was getting his agent’s phone number from the DGA. I found out very quickly that it was his home number when he answered personally. He was an affable man and very forgiving of the enthusiastic student who tried to lure him north from his home in Ramona, California for a retrospective of his films at the U of O in Eugene. “I don’t want to go to a tribute where no one is interested in my films,” he replied in his matter-of-fact, gruff/friendly manner. “Why don’t you come down and visit me here instead?” I did, numerous times, conducting hours of interviews with him between 1988 and 1992. I stayed in touch with him and his wife, Mary, until his death.

In the following excerpts he talks about his films with Randolph Scott and Burt Kennedy and touches on making Arruza. For more on Boetticher’s love affair with bullfighting and the amazing odyssey in Mexico while making Arruza, try to track down his autobiography When in Disgrace, a very entertaining read (and, sadly, out of print).

Spoiler alert: Be warned that Boetticher discusses key scenes and plot points of the films.

You never directed John Wayne in a film, but he played a major part in your life. He produced your breakthrough film The Bullfighter and the Lady and he was at least partially responsible for Seven Men From Now. How did you connect on Seven Men From Now?

Gail Russell and Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"

I was doing pictures at what used to be Selznick studios, I forget what they called it when I was there, and Duke was doing a picture with Ford and he called me in. He said “Bood, I’ve got a script over here I want you to read,” so I came over and picked it up at lunch and I read thirty-five pages and I walked back on the set and he was sitting with a bunch of people and I said “Duke, I want to do the picture.” He said “Well Jesus Christ, you can’t read the whole damned script in an hour.” I said “I read thirty-five pages. This is brilliant! I’d like to meet the author.” He said “Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy,” and Burt stood up. We shook hands and I said “Mr. Kennedy, you are a brilliant, brilliant writer. I don’t have to read anymore. I’m so glad I met you.” He said “Oh, we met a long time ago. I played the rabble rouser in A Man From Texas [working title to Man From the Alamo].” He’d been an actor. And that’s what started us. All you had to do was read one of his scripts. Anybody who didn’t like Burt Kennedy’s writing was crazy. The best scene I’ve ever directed in my life, I directed word for word from his script, and that’s when Lee Marvin and Walter Reed and Gail Russell and Randy are in the covered wagon. Marvin says “You know, a funny thing, I knew a big tall good lookin’ fellow once,” and he starts making love to Gail Russell. That was great writing.

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Budd Boetticher: An Introduction

When Oscar “Budd” Boetticher, the last of the old Hollywood two-fisted directors, died on November 27, 2001, his passing was barely noted. This old-fashioned studio pro with an independent streak, a colorful history (including a turn as a bullfighter in Mexico), and a career of some 35 features, had been largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated film scholars and western buffs. His work was poorly represented on VHS at the height of that format and, as of October 2008, only four of his over forty features were on DVD. Has any other celebrated American director ever been so poorly served by home video?

The Films of Budd Boetticher, a handsome box set of five defining films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, goes a long way to correcting that neglect. In anticipation of the November 4 release of the DVD set, we recall the career and celebrate the films of Budd Boetticher.

Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. Born Oscar Boetticher Jr., the sports-mad kid from a wealthy family planned a career in athletics until he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. He wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand and worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia until he broke away from the mire of low budget quickies with his own script. The Boetticher we know as Budd was born with The Bullfighter and the Lady, inspired by his own adventures as a young torero in Mexico (though certainly embellished for the screen), and filled with a reverence for the tradition of torero and a love of the Mexican culture.

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“Videodrome” – Long Live the New Flesh

Just a few years into the 21st century, Olivier Assayas wrote in The Village Voice: “Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.” It’s been 25 years since David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece drilled its mutant images into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, and Videodrome is as contemporary and relevant as ever.

"Videodrome" - love you television
"Videodrome" - a slave to the signal

You can trace David Cronenberg’s meditations on technology, disease, addiction, and mutation in the body human all the way back to his earliest shorts (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and features (Shivers and Rabid). Like George Romero before him, Cronenberg’s earliest films brought horror out of the past and into modern life, breaking taboos and barriers of good taste along the way. He makes his ideas physical and visceral, in a way that you can see and almost feel. It only becomes sharper and more resonant with his remake of The Fly, where he charts the transformation in gooey detail that looks like some diseased attack on the human body (it’s been called a metaphor for AIDS) and eXistenZ, a virtual reality game made flesh, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t so much blur as dissolve and overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality.

Even his most recent films explore the same ideas, only instead of some outside agent, he focuses on the way violence and emotion play upon our minds and our bodies. In Spider, the human mind creates a reality for its main character because the truth of his actions are too much to handle: psychosis as a kind of evolutionary fail safe, and this reality created from within is as real to him as the physical world. In A History of Violence, the past that the hero Tom wants to ignore and deny, his repressed history of violence, emerges like a dormant virus when he and his family are under threat. And it emerges without thought — it’s pure instinct, like a hardwired reflex kicked into action with the surge of adrenaline. An essential part of Cronenberg’s genius is making his concepts physical, visceral, alive. It’s what makes his ideas so powerful.

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Thirteen Landmarks of Italian Horror; or, There’s Always Room for Giallo

A mysterious stranger stalks a lovely young woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera lovingly recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo, a distinctly Italian twist on stalk and kill horror genre, could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo combines a poetic, haunting beauty with grand guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity.

“Black Sunday”

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.

For more on Mario Bava, see my overview/appreciation Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death.

Black Sunday (1960), Mario Bava

Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, spits curses with hellfire as a spiked mask is slowly placed over her face. Suddenly a massive mallet pounds the iron mask and the credits explode in fire. Even in his directorial debut, Mario Bava knew how grab an audience’s attention, and he doesn’t let it go. It’s not really a giallo, but it is the first great Italian horror and the feature debut of the man who would define the giallo over the next decade. Steele only starred a couple of Italian horror films, but her distinctive, unusual beauty seemed to capture something primal in the mix of sex and sadism, innocence and corruption, victim and victimizer. She is terrifyingly lovely in a double role as the vengeful witch burned at the stake and her guileless descendant who unwittingly resurrects her with a drop of blood, and she’s both innocent and devilishly wicked with equal fervor. The moody, macabre, hauntingly beautiful cult classic of cruelty marked the beginning of great talent and the first great work of Italian horror.

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Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death

Mario Bava turns 100 this week. In tribute, Parallax View is pulling up this feature from the archives.

[This is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published on Greencine, April 3, 2007]

Italian poster for "Black Sunday"
Italian poster for”Black Sunday”

Mario Bava is a horror original.

A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door.

Bava was born into the movies in 1914. Italy was at the height of its epic historical spectacles and his father, Eugenio Bava, was one of Italy’s top cameramen; he shot, among others film, the lavish blockbuster Quo Vadis. Mario trained as a painter but soon followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of Italy’s most in-demand cameramen (Bava disdained the term “cinematographer”) and special effects artists, often working uncredited. He’s said to have made unsigned directorial contributions to such productions as Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1955) with Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (1959) with Steve Reeves, and Raoul Walsh’s Estherand the King (1960) with Joan Collins.

Legend has it that Italian genre veteran Riccardo Freda “pushed” his friend Bava into the director’s chair by abandoning not one but two projects for his frequent cinematographer to finish (it’s hard to verify the real reason that Freda left the projects, but it makes for a good enough story to justify printing the legend). Based on his uncredited direction completing Freda’s I Vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, plus his imaginative work as cinematographer, special effects artist, and assistant director on Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining muscleman movies Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Bava was offered a shot a directing a project of his choosing. He chose Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” and made his official directoral debut, at age 46, on The Mask of Satan, renamed Black Sunday for the U.S. release.

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Jonathan Demme on “Rachel Getting Married” – “As long as we are born into families, it’s going to be a big deal”

Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married may look like your basic Sundance/Slamdance indie feature, with its wandering handheld camerawork and ensemble riffing through the collisions and confrontations of a dysfunctional family reunion, but in his hands the familiar conflicts and clashes are invigorated by an authenticity and, dare I say it, a sense of rediscovery. The one-time underdog auteur who traded his small termite art movies of American eccentrics and their distinctive communities (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild) for the Hollywood respectability of films like Philadelphia and Beloved is back doing what he does best. Demme brings an inclusiveness and a sense of community to the film. He gives characters we may only meet once a lived-in quality and makes music a defining part of the community with a soundtrack played live by the wedding guests (a roster that includes Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East, among others). Rachel Getting Married is both warmly generous and uncomfortably honest and it’s one of the best American movies of the year.

the sisters of "Rachel Getting Married"
Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt: the sisters of “Rachel Getting Married”

My phone interview with Jonathan Demme started almost 45 minutes late. Once we started talking, it became obvious how such a thing could happen. I was supposed to have a 15-minute interview, but the time flew so easily that when the publicist broke in to pull him away for the next interview, we’d been talking for over half an hour. Demme speaks with an excitement and passion that I rarely hear in people discussing their work; reading his words doesn’t begin to capture the enthusiasm or expressiveness of the interview. He doesn’t just say the words “reluctantly,” he transforms it into an expression of the epic struggle within himself the way he pronounces it: “relllll-UC-tantly.” And his love of film and filmmaking is matched by his respect for collaborators and his excitement over the magic that arises out of collaboration.

How did this project come your way?

Sidney Lumet called me up on the telephone and said, ‘My daughter, Jenny, has written a wonderful screenplay and Jonathan, you should direct it.’

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