[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
1976 is a year I’m very pleased to see the back of. Several especially nice things happened to me during the past twelvemonth, but an oversupply of cloaca also insisted on hitting the fan with dispiriting frequency, and a good deal of it was cinematic cloaca. Any year in which the man who just made Nashville turns around and makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson, and people who really ought to know better hail Lina Wertmuller as a distaff version of the Second Coming and Network as a serious film of intellectual and aesthetic importance, and the public is asked to pay good money to watch Midway, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Scorchy, The GreatScout and Cathouse Thursday, Swashbuckler, Vigilante Force and A Star Is Born Barbra Streisand–style can’t be anything but the harbinger of a new Dark Age.
It didn’t help that some normally reliable film artists seemed ‘way off the beam. That The Magic Flute, Bergman’s not-very-adventurous filming of a Mozart performance, or Face to Face, a closet drama of a rather insipid creature who was welcome to stay in her closet (Liv Ullmann’s heroic performance notwithstanding), failed to move me much wasn’t particularly disheartening or even unexpected. (I wish he’d make a spy movie.) Neither, given the international coproduction problems and the preponderance of treacle in the basic makeup of The Blue Bird, was there great surprise in George Cukor’s inability (decision?) to just let the thing lie there and moult.
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
‘B’ MOVIES. By Don Miller. Curtis Books. 350 pages. $1.50. KINGS OF THE Bs. Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. Dutton. 561 pages. $6.95.
“If some bright new critic should awaken the world to the merits of Joseph Lewis in the near future,” Andrew Sarris once wrote, “we will have to scramble back to his 1940 record: Two-Fisted Rangers, Blazing Six-Shooters, Texas Stagecoach, The Man from Tumbleweeds, Boys of the City, Return of Wild Bill, and That Gang of Mine.Admittedly, in this direction lies madness.”
Sarris was referring to Lewis’ days as a director of B movies on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” and, as he later noted, Lewis has been “discovered,” and so those seemingly forgotten B movies from 1940 are marked by auteurists and cultists for future research. And perhaps it is a form of madness that auteurists or anyone else should want to seriously examine the low-budget films turned out as program fillers on Hollywood’s production lines. For there is little indication so far that this aspect of Hollywood’s history deserves fuller appreciation, and the films themselves have been mostly unavailable since the last great splurge of B movies on television.
But the Poverty Row films of Lewis, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Andre DeToth, Anthony Mann and others loom as tantalizing examples of talent and inspiration triumphing over limited means. These directors gained recognition of one sort or another and went on from the Bs to bigger budgets and better things. But has their later success given their B movies a visibility not granted so far to worthy B directors who never graduated to heftier budgets? At present, we have little way of knowing. Felix Feist, for example, is a director about whom next to nothing has been written, but my own chance encounter with The Devil Thumbs a Ride (RKO, 1947) had sufficient appeal to make him a subject for further research of my own. Similarly, BlackAngel(Universal, 1946) and a Sherlock Holmes entry like TheScarletClaware enough to indicate that Roy William Neill is a director worthy of attention.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
THE NEW WAVE. By James Monaco. Oxford University Press. 372 pages. $15.95.
The French New Wave is the richest single “trend” in the cinema of the second half of this century, and the only aspect of film history that presently seems to have much relevance to the muddled movie art of the 1970s. It may also be the last significant “national” period in our increasingly internationalized film world. Also, it just may be as big a part of “the problem”—of contemporary movies—as it is of “the solution.” But none of this, it turns out, is especially important in James Monaco’s new book.
Monaco’s The New Wave is really a book about Truffaut and Godard with chapters on Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette. The author’s version of la nouvelle vague omits Resnais, Varda, Derny, Malle, Rozier and other relevant figures, and limits itself to what is really the Cahiers du Cinéma branch of the New Wave. All five of Monaco’s directors are former Cahiers critics, and Monaco is especially interested in the ways in which their films take a critical approach to the nature of film language. The result is, at least in part, a book about movies-as-film-criticism—all the more so since Monaco devotes considerable space to the directors’ declared intentions for their film work.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
VISIONARY FILM. By P. Adams Sitney. Oxford University Press. 452 pages. $13.95. ABSTRACT FILM AND BEYOND. By Malcolm LeGrice. The MIT Press. 160 pages. $12.50. THE CUBIST CINEMA. By Standish D. Lawder. New York University Press. 265 pages. $11.75 (paperback). THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA. Edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York University Press. 380 pages. $20 (paperback $8.95). A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE CINEMA. The American Federation of the Arts. 176 pages. $5.95 (paperback). STRUCTURAL FILM ANTHOLOGY. Edited by Peter Gidal. British Film Institute / New York Zoetrope. 140 pages. $2 (paperback). COVER TO COVER. By Michael Snow. New York University Press. No pagination. $12.50 (paperback).
It’s not possible for me to give as fully authoritative a critique of these books as I would like—and that, as it happens, has a lot to do with my calling attention to them here. By and large, these volumes are concerned with films whose circulation and accessibility have not matched the critical interest which they have generated in print. Most of these films qualify as “underground” or “experimental” in a system of distribution and exhibition wherein the “mainstream” is limited almost exclusively to feature-length narrative films. I am perhaps as guilty as the next reviewer of concentrating on feature films with comparatively wide audience appeal, and yet for some time now I’ve found it rather odd that our views of film art and its history place so much emphasis on feature films and so little on short films and nonnarrative movies. Or, to focus the issue a little closer to the objects of this review: how is it that the American feature film, however rich and engaging, has inspired no book comparable to Sitney’s on “The American Avant-Garde”? and how is it that Sitney’s avant-garde, such a rich and engaging subject, can be such a dim entity for what I assume is the majority of even the most serious moviegoers? and how is it that the more radical forms of modernism seem to have less acceptance in film than in any other art form? Answers to these questions might embrace a variety of habits, assumptions, and circumstances. But the very existence of these books suggests that the “avant-garde” may be much harder to ignore in the future, particularly with respect to American and British cinema.
[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
One tends to think of Luis Buñuel’s “early” career in terms of long desert spaces between highly personal landmarks: almost two decades of relative anonymity between the collaboration with Dalí—Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’ôr(1930)—and the explosive resurfacing occasioned by Los olvidados(1950), and then a decade of ostensibly “commercial” filmmaking between Losolvidadosand Viridiana(1961), which in turn initiated a period of big and small masterpieces extending to the present. As a new biography by Francisco Aranda makes evident, Buñuel was much more involved in film in the Thirties and Forties than has generally been recognized; and, as retrospective tributes and newly available 16mm prints show, Buñuel’s “commercial” work is much more interesting than disparaging remarks about the director’s “Mexican period” would lead us to believe. One might go even further: some of Buñuel’s lesser-known Fifties films are so good that they may alter our sense not only of Buñuel but of film in the Fifties as well.
Of the movies the director made between Los olvidadosand Viridiana,perhaps only Nazarín(1958) has any great currency. But at least half a dozen titles from the period, many of them out of circulation until recently, are of special importance. Subida al cielo (1951) and Él(1953), two films which have been generally available, rank as small masterpieces—the one a devastatingly surreal B picture*, the other a superbly succinct psychological study which has something of the seductiveness and sting of Belle de Jour(1967). Susana(1951), Abismos de pasión (1954), and RobinsonCrusoe(1953) are literary adaptations of considerable interest. A number of “commercial” films from just before and after Los olvidados—GranCasino (1947), Elgrancalavera (1949), La hija del engaño (1950), Ilusionviaiaen tranvia (1953), and Elrioy la Muerte (1954) rate as appealing minor works. But three others—Ensayode un crimen (1955), La Mort en ce jardin (1956), and TheYoungOne (1960)—deserve to be known by more than Buñuel aficionados alone. All three reflect a radical filmmaker’s approach to a conservative, conformist age, and all three are among Buñuel’s wisest and most engaging films.
* * *
La Mort en ce jardin (Death In the Garden) is an “ambitious” film whose best moments prove more interesting than its plot—perhaps deliberately so. One senses Buñuel is wary of letting the film’s journey (through a dictatorship and a jungle) become too much of an easily interpretable allegory. Buñuel’s cinema is consistently and rigorously opposed to easy, readymade answers, and LaMortreflects this through a group of characters who constantly keep us off balance, and through a series of small digressions from a deceptively linear plot. The film is a sort of pilgrims’ progress, but one which is more intent on moral distinctions than on clearcut moral lessons. Anti-Catholicism and anti-imperialism both loom large, and Buñuel links them quite directly with each other. But the film’s major insights have more to do with the nature, extent and price of individual freedom. All of the characters, including an unusual missionary priest, Father Lizzardi (played by Michel Piccoli), are individualists and entrepreneurs of one sort or another. The story’s movement reveals their discovery and/or neglect of the connections each has with his fellows.
Four characters have special importance in the film’s South American setting. Castin (Charles Vanel), an aging diamond-miner, dreams of returning with his daughter (Michèle Girardon) to France and opening a restaurant. He also wants to marry Djin (Simone Signoret), a prostitute who is interested in his money but not in him. Lizzardi preaches acquiescence when the workers plan an armed rebellion against the government’s nationalization of the diamond mines. Chark (Georges Marachal), a lone wolf adventurer, disdains the government and the rebellion; but when he is arrested for freelance diamond smuggling and thereby mixed up in the general police-state brouhaha, he escapes and temporarily fights alongside the rebel leaders with a vengeance. When all of these people are thrust together in flight, he becomes their guiding light—in a way which encompasses both the conventions of the adventure film and the idiom of Buñuel’s cinema. Chark, in fact, is unique in that respect: no other Buñuel film I know of has a figure who is so commanding without being corrupt at the same time. Buñuel is not a director whom we think of as a creator of heroes, but Chark’s independence, ferocity, and lack of sentiment bring him closer to the conventional hero than is usually permitted in Buñuel’s more personal movies.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful ismost probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,” he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it isalways a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)
Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and RioBravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Keep Reading
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Céline and Julie Go Boating just may bring Jacques Rivette from the background to the foreground in the continuing history of French New Wave directors. Rivette is another of the Cahiers du cinéma writers who made his way from critic to director but, at least until now, has remained something of an unknown quantity, more mentioned than seen. Commercial and legal difficulties with his first two films (Paris Belongs to Us, 1958-60, and The Nun,1962) meant that his movies were discussed by European observers long before they were shown (and then only briefly) in this country. His films since then have been extraordinarily long (Spectreruns 13 hours; OutOne, a much shorter assemblage from the same footage, still runs four hours) and that may have a lot to do with the apparent lack of circulation accorded L’Amour fou, a four-hour Rivette which has had a U.S. distributor for some time but scant bookings.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixensis a rowdy, funky, and occasionally obnoxious comedy which just happens to be one of the livelier entertainments of 1979. Meyer, of course, has long been known as an uncommonly talented filmmaker on the burlesque-house side of the industry, andâ€”at the very leastâ€”his latest effort seems likely to more than satisfy his fans. The oversized female breasts, the nonstop libidinal overdrive, and the cartoonish sexual antics are all here in abundance. But there’s also a chance that word may get around about Beyond the Valley‘s generally happy mixture of sex, satire, and film artâ€”in which case, some people may begin suggesting that this middle-American Rabelais’s new film is his masterpiece. The thing has a plot, but to summarize it would be to miss the point. It’s rather like what you would expect if a Henry Miller character had rewritten Our Town for serialization in Playboy or Penthouse. Better yet, and perhaps also worse, a Meyer press release describes the film thusly: “…an all out assault on today’s sexual mores and moreâ€”an end around attack against women’s libâ€”blasting through the male machismo syndromeâ€”blasting the crap out of convictions, hang-ups, obsessionsâ€”the whole bagâ€”sexually aggressive females, willing klutzy men, petroleum jelly, gingham and gossamer, tax-sheltered religion, black socks, bedroom prowess, bunko artists, big breast fixation, rear window red necks, therapeutic cuckolding, the sixty mile an hour zinger, born again immersion,” etc., etc.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
Luna is just a word, a magic word, by means of which everyone can project his or her own dream. The moon, of course, is a very rich symbol, but the only reference to it I‘d accept is the simplest one: just as the moon has two faces, so every character and situation in the film has two faces—that which appears and that which is hidden.
—Bernardo Bertolucci in Sight and Sound
Luna is, in a very important sense, a surrealist film which makes use of the stylistic possibilities opened up by Buñuel in the 1960s. Belle de jour, for example, used a basically realistic mise-en-scène for all of its sequences: dreams, fantasies, and flashbacks were permitted to exist on the same plane with everyday experience; no perceptual reality, no level of experience, was treated as more (or less) real than any other. Advancing the surrealist attack on the conventional distinction between dream and reality, Buñuel demonstrated that matter-of-fact realism is much more appropriate than expressionistic exaggeration in presenting the basic validity of surrealist perception.
Luna, in turn, might be viewed as a seamless blend of realistic narrative and surrealist psychology. In Belle de jour, one can still deduce that some scenes are dreams and others are not—though the film’s stylistics render this process comparatively irrelevant. But in Luna, Bertolucci extends this ploy even further: no scene is clearly marked as a fantasy or dream, and none is entirely free of the irrational associations and impulse that we customarily link with the world of dreams. With or without the director’s public statements about the film’s conception springing from his own dreams and memories, Luna‘s events are simultaneously the stuff of dreams and the stuff of realistic drama.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Honeysuckle Roseis apparently so sure of its audience that it isnâ€™t the least concerned about having a good story to tell. The film, of course, is a vehicle for Willie Nelson, but regardless of whether youâ€™re one of this popular singerâ€™s fans, you canâ€™t help feeling that the whole thing was written (if thatâ€™s not too strong a word) during someoneâ€™s lunch hour. Nelson is supposed to be a Willie-like country western singer named Buck Bonham. The role calls for him to sing a lot; the rest of the time he has to try to look like “real people” while the scenario does a quick rehash of Formula A2 (professional entertainerâ€™s love of his job puts strain on his marriage) and Formula B4 (the hero falls in love with his best friendâ€™s something-or-other). Willie canâ€™t act, so the movie lets him sing his way out of these troubles. The wife is played by Dyan Cannon. The best friend is played by Slim Pickens. The something-or-other (best friendâ€™s daughter in this case) is played by Amy Irving. All three do nice enough work, but not so nice that Honeysuckle Rosecan cover up for the deficiencies of its star. Irving does the best acting in the filmâ€”chiefly because her character gets two or three things to feel bad about after having spent half the picture in a Willie-thrall. Pickens gets to dabble in guitar a little (wasnâ€™t he a singing cowboy on the radio before he got into movies?). Cannon bounces around like a Public Service Message for physical fitness. You keep wondering why she doesnâ€™t just punch Willie out and go off and take up with a gymnast or a Dallas Cowboy. But as the neglected but faithful wife she opts instead for New Age assertiveness and pragmatic restraint in the movieâ€™s big emotional scenes.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
The Black Stallionis more pretty than beautiful, more contrived than inspired. Inreporting on the San Francisco Film Festival last fall, I wrote: â€œThe Black Stallion,directed by Carroll Ballard for Francis Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope, was clearly a success with its â€˜hometownâ€™ audience. Itâ€™s an adaptation of the famous childrenâ€™s story, and it seems designed for annual â€˜prestigeâ€™ showings for the family market. It has its moments of visual beauty, but a little more poetic daring and a little less in the way of safe artiness might have made this one something more than an expertly conceived business proposition.â€ After a second viewing of the film recently, I still find myself feeling that way. The whole thing has an â€œinnocentâ€ charm about it, and there are some stunning shots. Itâ€™s pretty and nice in ways that are merely pretty nice. The story seems better suited to the format of the full-length animated cartoon, and the flashy photography draws heavily on the kinetics of the TV commercial and the imagery of travel ads. There is an obvious element of fantasy to this tale of a boy saved from a shipwreck by a wondrous black stallion which becomes the boyâ€™s constant companion and which said boy rides to victory in a big challenge race against two top thoroughbreds.