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by Richard T. Jameson

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Review: The Sugarland Express

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.

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Review: Man of Flowers

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 21, 1984]

Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers begins with a painting and a striptease. In the case of the former (which appears behind the opening credits), the camera eye is at first focused in tight, on the refined profile of a Renaissance nobleman and, to his left, a pale forest of organ pipes. An actual forest is visible in the distance—to be precise, part of a meticulously landscaped park of which the gentleman seems to be taking survey from a balcony. Still inventorying the details of the painting—patterns of shrubs and trees, the statue of a satyr—the camera drifts rightward and then starts to withdraw slowly, so that we begin to perceive the composition entire. The last element we become aware of is a naked woman, alabaster and robust, a curving landscape unto herself and the real focus of the man’s transfixed (we now recognize) gaze.

The striptease which almost immediately follows recapitulates, but also revises, the dynamics of this aesthetic movement. This time we open on a closeup of a woman, a saucy working-class gamine (Alyson Best) who proceeds to remove article after article of her clothing, to the “Love Duet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, for the delectation of a well-to-do client. The camera pulls back slowly so that eventually we are watching from somewhere behind this seated gentleman’s left shoulder. As with the painting, the shot contains a great deal more information. The setting for the striptease, a room in the man’s house, is as meticulously and symbolically composed as the environment of the painting. In fact, the young woman stands in front of another painting, modern, abstract, a complex of curved and thrusting shapes evocative of human genitalia, male and female at once. The space surrounding her is replete with statuary, objets d’art—and vegetation. Whereas the painting behind the main title is by definition frozen in time, a snapshot of erotic potentiality, Cox’s “action painting” of another erotic moment not only suggests the Renaissance painting become movie, but also indexes the particular sensibility of Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye), the watcher/artist seated at right who has willed the moment into being.

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Review: Phantom India

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.

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Video: Framing Pictures – May 2016

Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton debate and discuss the recent restorations of film noir orphans Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run, the legacy of Sam Peckinpah, Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, and (non)critical opinions of Captain America: Civil War in the May 2016 edition of Framing Pictures from Scarecrow Video.

These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.

The June edition will take place on Friday, June 10 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.

Review: Alfredo, Alfredo

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

Dustin Hoffman is seen without being heard in Pietro Germi’s Alfredo, Alfredo, but the disadvantage is minor, so adroitly does he adapt himself to the characteristic and very photographable behavioral style of the harried Germi male, made iconically vivid and familiar by Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style. As there and in subsequent films like Seduced and Abandoned and The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians, Germi employs hectic, sardonic, sometimes slapstick comedy to exemplify the very real agonies that result from the clash of love, sex, and social strictures in his native land. Whereas Divorce Italian Style satirized an existing dilemma, Alfredo celebrates historical progress: something like divorce American style has finally replaced the last resort, upholding the Unwritten Law, and the new picture actually begins with the protagonist in the lawyer’s office preparing to shed his less-than-ideal spouse. Not that divorce is the be-all, end-all, and cure-all in Germi’s scheme of things: he and his hero conclude the film with shaky optimism at best, almost certain that the new marriage being made in the final scene will also prove unworkable.

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Review: A King in New York

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

Charles Chaplin’s 1956 English movie A King in New York begins with a mob surging into a palace shouting “We want the head of Charlot!” Or so the auteurist ear registers it for a moment—actually it’s Shahdov, not Charlot, the people want the head of. But Shahdov is played by Charlie Chaplin. Same difference. A King in New York has long been spoken of as Chaplin’s cinematic kissoff to the country that turned thumbs down on him and his Monsieur Verdoux in the late Forties when he became too politically outspoken—the wrong sort of politics—and found himself in a paternity suit as well; an assistant Attorney General of that country denied the British-born Chaplin a reentry visa after he’d gone abroad in the early Fifties, and so the man who was once the best-loved figure in the United States and probably the world elected to sit out the rest of his life in Switzerland.

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Review: Dillinger

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

That our final glimpse of John Dillinger should be out of focus is appropriate. Dillinger promised to be an exciting directorial debut for John Milius—promised especially hard in the first quarter of an hour—and the role of Dillinger himself presented Warren Oates with the perfect opportunity to etch one of the great characterizations of the American screen, as well as to win widespread recognition at long last. That Oates has failed to achieve either scarcely seems his fault since, whenever he is given screen time, he hovers on the verge of discovering a dangerous and original persona—and, it must be added, he looks historically perfect, unsettlingly so. But Dillinger and anyone else resembling a character are essentially lost sight of, except as gunmen and targets, from about the midpoint of the film onward—that is, starting with the Mason City, Iowa, massacre. The mayhem is powerfully filmed and individual shots are often vividly visualized, but Milius fails completely to give sequences or whole sections of the film any cohesion or sense of purpose beyond slam slam slam.

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TV: ‘Lou Grant’ farewell

The first season of the seventies TV series Lou Grant debuts on DVD this week. To mark the long-awaited debut, Parallax View is featuring a pair of pieces about the series originally published during the run of the series. The first piece was published on Monday, May 24.

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 7, 1982]

My wife just told me that Lou Grant is going to be on in Lou Grant‘s time slot this week. This is something new and different. It had looked as if CBS, not content with having cancelled one of the best dramatic series in television history, wouldn’t even let it die in its own bed: for the past few weeks, the 10pm Monday berth has been consecrated to pumping ratings life into a piece of dreck called Cagney and Lacey. Lou’s fans had begun to wonder whether they’d have a chance to bid him farewell.

Actually, part of me has always been getting ready to live with Lou Grant‘s cancellation. Fear of that eventuality brought me out of the closet in November 1977 to do my first television review. This terrific show had been on for about a month and hardly anyone I knew, people who ought to like and value it, was watching. (They didn’t know about it; it was on too late for a weeknight; “I only watch public television.”)

Quality in television scored one of its rare victories that season: Lou Grant survived despite slow-building ratings. On ABC or NBC it would have been chopped after thirteen weeks, if not sooner. But CBS had a tradition of nurturing distinguished slow starters (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Lou Grant, if not Lou Grant, had been born). The network remained patient. Critics spread the word and so did more and more regular folks. The show’s viewing strength grew. Come one miraculous week in the summer of ’78, a Lou Grant rerun copped number-one position in the Nielsens and Ed Asner beamed at us from the cover of People.

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TV: Lou Grant – hail

The first season of the seventies TV series Lou Grant debuts on DVD this week. To mark the long-awaited debut, Parallax View is featuring a pair of pieces about the series originally published during the run of the series. The companion piece is here.

[Originally published in The Weekly, November 30, 1977]

He’s stacking frozen dinners in his shopping cart when he notices an attractive woman, fortyish, coming in out of the blank L.A. sun. She turns down another aisle; he decides he has to go to that part of the market too. She can’t quite reach a box on the top shelf; he gets it for her, gives an amiable no-sweat smile, cannily steers his cart elsewhere.

A minute later, he’s back beside her at the produce section. She smiles politely. He grabs an avocado and beams, “These are really great here!”

Her smile gets a little strained as she glances around the commonplace market: “Here?”

“California….”

He’s losing the moment. “The only trouble is, there’s too much for one person. No matter what ya do, that other half is gonna turn black”—his cowpie grin spreads wider in desperation—”and rotten“—things aren’t going quite the way he hoped—”and slimy!” She’s gone.

As anyone of taste and discernment must know, Lou Grant lost his job at the end of last TV season when he and Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter—everybody except Ted Baxter—got fired from the news department at WJM-TV, Minneapolis. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s unorthodox way of writing finis to itself after seven years as one of the most successful comedy series in the annals of the medium.

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Cracker Crumbs

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

At least half of Seattle knows by now that the Seattle Film Society did not show Animal Crackers as originally announced for May 18. They know because at least half of Seattle was planning to come see Animal Crackers at St. Mark’s Cathedral. This is what happened.

Animal Crackers is the one among the thirteen films of the Marx Brothers that has not been in general release for years. Like its predecessor Cocoanuts, it was based on—it virtually is—a stage show the boys did late in the Twenties. The original producer was Paramount Pictures, the studio that produced all of the first five Marx films (Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horsefeathers, Duck Soup). Paramount no longer distributes its post-silent, pre-1950 films; they were picked up for nontheatrical distribution and TV leasing by Universal MCA. Because of some hassle involving the copyright on the preexisting stage material, Universal has never troubled to clear the way toward officially rereleasing Animal Crackers. Hence its increasingly conspicuous absence on the repertory circuit otherwise wellnigh glutted with Marx Brothers movies.

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Review: Cutter and Bone

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1981]

In March of this year, a film named Cutter and Bone opened in New York under the aegis of United Artists. Vincent Canby of The New York Times panned it, business was bad, and UA, still bleeding from its Heaven’s Gate wounds, yanked the film after one week. That was just in time to miss a number of weekly magazine reviews hailing it as perhaps the most exciting American film of the year, and glowing with praise for its director, Ivan Passer, and its stars, Jeff Bridges, John Heard, and Lisa Eichhorn. At that time UA turned Cutter and Bone over to its difficult-films division, United Artists Classics, where a new ad campaign was devised and a new title imposed. As Cutter’s Way, the film has begun a test market engagement in Seattle. You may or may not get to see it. Here’s a report from someone who did.

***

Richard Bone saw a body being dumped in an alley around midnight. He doesn’t know that yet. Now it’s a couple of hours later and he’s driving home. Not his home, exactly, but where he sleeps. Not quite that, either: where he sleeps until he grows uncomfortable with having been in one place too long—usually around first light; then he gets up and goes down to the marina and finishes sleeping on one of the boats he’s supposed to be hustling to susceptible Santa Barbra wives. But right now he’s driving home, to Alex Cutter’s house, in Alex Cutter’s car, to Alex Cutter’s wife Mo.

From the kitchen come sounds of clunky rummaging in the refrigerator; the light of its bulb is all that shows us Mo, in souvenir Vietnam Oriental jacket, dredging up a fresh bottle. She walks into the living room barefoot and careful, her face set with the concentration needed to keep her head straight on her shoulders. Seeing Bone, she smiles after a fashion. Some of the smile may say Welcome. Some of the smile may say, as she more or less does now, You again! A lot of it is just because that’s what happens to Mo’s face when she’s stoned. You can feel the alcohol and the downers in every delicate, courageous step she takes, sense how the strain of keeping her balance through recent months and years has made her bones frail, understand that the pressure under her skull is like a headachy memory of grace she can’t let go of.

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Video: Framing Pictures – April 2016

Richard T. Jameson, Bruce Reid, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton sat down at the Scarecrow Video screening room on April 8, 2016 for the April edition of Framing Pictures. Over the course of the evening they discussed Cutter’s Way (newly released on Blu-ray; RTJ’s original review on Parallax View here) and declared Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings the greatest movie ever made.

The Seattle Channel was there to record the event. It is now showing on cable and streaming via their website. Or you can see it here.

Picture People (2)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

WILLIAM WYLER: The Authorized Biography. By Axel Madsen. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 456 pages. $9.95.
CECIL B. DeMILLE. By Charles Higham. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 280 pages. $10.
LIGHT YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS. By Tay Garnett, with Fredda Dudley Balling. Foreword by Frank Capra. Arlington House. 347 pages. $9.95.
A SHORT TIME FOR INSANITY: An Autobiography. By William A. Wellman. Foreword by Richard Schickel. Hawthorn Books, Inc. 276 pages. $10.

Books on directors’ oeuvres are nothing new, and neither are interviews with film directors, booklength and otherwise. But it’s only recently that directors’ lives have struck publishers as likely material. Undoubtedly the popularity of Frank Capra’s The Name above the Title has been the most persuasive argument. Recently I’ve read four new additions to the genre, two biographies—one living subject, one deceased—one as-told-to autobiography, and one of the real McCoy, a personal document that in its idiosyncratic way is as valuable an addition to film literature as Capra’s. The order is that of the above titles, and I’ll talk about them in the same sequence.

***

The virtues of Axel Madsen’s William Wyler tend to become more evident after one has read Charles Higham’s Cecil B. DeMille. Both seem to be job books. Madsen gets off to a limp start condensing the erratic history of Mulhouse, the Alsace town where Willy Wyler was born in 1902, and dreaming up trite images like Leopold the father “sitting on the veranda and watching his blue cigar smoke disappear into the night” shortly before World War I became a neighborhood reality. As soon as his subject is of an age to store up his own memories for recounting five decades later, the narrative improves. Mulhouse (then Mülhausen) changing hands—and switching from German to French time—four times during August 1914; Willy following his elder brother Robert (later his producer, and a director in France) to school in Lausanne, and Robert following him to Paris; experiences with haberdashery and whores; and finally, an offer of employment from cousin Carl Lämmle—in America, Laemmle—head of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. His film career began in New York, toting interoffice memos and cans of film, but he and fellow expatriate Paul Kohner soon established Universal’s foreign-language publicity service translating into German and French publicity stories written in the Hollywood offices and, when necessary, making up their own.

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Review: Blazing Saddles

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

The first wave of reviews said it was hilarious; the second, that it wasn’t that funny. I caught it on the third wave and it was almost that funny—assuming, that is, that you have a stomach for unrelenting bad taste, dirty jokes, and goodnatured, let’s-be-egalitarian-and-offend-everybody racist references. That wasn’t structured as a putdown—I have one of those stomachs myself. But halfway through Blazing Saddles I suddenly realized I’d guffawed good and hard at quite a few things along the way, but I could call almost none of them to mind. Like Friedkin and Blatty in their department, Mel Brooks tends to shock and run. I’d probably laugh a second time at Slim Pickens’s riding up and demanding “Whut in th’ wide wide world uh sports is goin’ on here?!” because, although it’s a dumb joke, it and Pickens were both funny the first time and Pickens would still be delightful the second. I wouldn’t be caved in a second time when John Hillerman pretentiously invokes Nietzsche and David Huddleston responds, “Ah, blow it out your ass, Howard!” with a ten-gallon scowl, because that gag lacks even the whimsy of “wide wide world of sports” and depends purely on surprise to work at all. Both Hillerman and Huddleston have done fine comic turns in the past (for Bogdanovich in What’s Up, Doc? and Newman-Benton in Bad Company, respectively; and there was also Hillerman’s truly menacing job as the sheriff—and his bootlegger brother—in Paper Moon), but Brooks encourages them to turn in only the broadest, most insubstantial, TV-variety-sketch performances.

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Review: The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

[originally published in The Weekly, November 9, 1983]

The Right Stuff is the biggest, brightest, busiest movie of the year, exhilarating in its largeness of spirit, in the sheer physical scope of its achievement, and in the breadth and complexity of its ambitions. It’s also an exasperatingly difficult film to review, for its strengths and weaknesses frequently lie side-by-each, and although the former far outweigh the latter, both must be acknowledged.

Anyone setting out to make a film from Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff faces an awesome challenge: how to take 16 years’ worth of aviation history teeming with event, detail, character, and information, and shape it into a coherent, let alone an engrossing, movie. In this, writer-director Philip Kaufman has stunningly succeeded. Against all odds, unintimidated by the shifting currents of history and changing fashions in American heroism, his Right Stuff rushes along a breathlessly clear narrative line for 3 hours and 13 minutes. It’s a joyride with substance, the sort of experience that leaves even classy kiddie-kar entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi looking trivial by comparison.

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