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by Richard T. Jameson

Contributor

Moments out of Time 1973

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January/February 1974]

• The death of Slim Pickens in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: “Knock knock knockin’ on Heaven’s door”…

• The cut from Calvero the performer staring out at an empty theatre to Calvero the man sitting on his bed in the night, staring into the camera with haunted eyes—Charles Chaplin in Limelight

two english girls
Two English Girls

Two English Girls: Anne (Kika Markham) paying Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud) the forfeit, a kiss through a chair-back: in the spectacles of the onlooking Muriel (Stacey Tendeter), the firelight burns a demonic red; she turns her gaze away and the light goes out; Truffaut fades before the kiss….

Charley Varrick: A wordless contract made between Varrick (Walter Matthau) and his dying wife (Jacqueline Scott), while Harman (Andy Robinson)—and perhaps the audience—remains unaware, thinking her dead already…

• Enrico Mattei (Gian Maria Volontè) striding about the Libyan desert at night in the science-fiction glare of a blazing gas font—The Mattei Affair

• A desperate run from the outhouse by Maggie Smith, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, which ends with her encircled by toilet paper…

• The first time in Such a Gorgeous Kid like Me when the night club singer (Guy Marchand) beds down with the gorgeous kid (Bernadette Lafont): we cut outside his dressingroom and the soundtrack roars with his record of the Indianapolis Speedway (the second time Truffaut uses it, it falls rather flat)….

• Robert Blake sitting in the middle of the road, his blood in his hands and his head sunk in eternal reverie, as Conrad Hall’s camera … recedes—Electra Glide in Blue

• The duel between the god-men (Peter O’Toole and the late Nigel Green)—The Ruling Class

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Moments out of Time 1978

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

The American Friend: Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) removes a sheet of gold leaf from its packing, lets it fall shivering onto his hand, blows it snug like a second skin, then uses that hand to seize the telephone receiver and make the call that will commit him to Ripley’s game….

• Standing in the middle of the prairie listening to the wheat lean with the breeze, as the call of a blackbird draws near, then passes by—Days of Heaven

• Full shots of the Basin in Comes a Horseman: Ewing (Jason Robards) left alone by his only son’s grave; dynamiting and horsefall; quelling the stampede; the tiny glow of an evening dance, while a light plane drones over the mountains…

The American Friend
The American Friend

The Duellists: D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), having been wounded by his implacable adversary, lies in a steaming tub discussing matters of high import with his mistress (Diana Quick). His voice grows more and more pinched. “Don’t sneeze!” the lady implores; then, desperately, “Describe honor!” “Honor is … indescribable!” d’Hubert all but weeps, and the sneeze comes, rending his wounded side….

• The littlest ship in the world, and a fart lit fondly in farewell—Stroszek

An Unmarried Woman: Erica’s friend (Kelly Bishop) manages to stop weeping and resumes their conversation about favorite actresses; smiling, “I liked Rita Hayworth—she was pretty”…

• For Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), the impossible, inexplicable, intolerable, inevitable split-second glimpse of Clouseau the Godfather (Peter Sellers) as the doors of a Hong Kong elevator close—The Revenge of the Pink Panther

• Can Roberts Blossom be … that is, would he … is he really eating his dog for supper?—Citizens Band

The Buddy Holly Story: Buddy (Gary Busey), Jesse (Don Stroud), and Ray Bob (Charlie Martin Smith), in a car on their way to Nashville, browsing toward the realization of “Peggy Sue”…

• Pushups in the empyrean—Heaven Can Wait

• And an echo of the real Heaven Can Wait in The Man Who Loved Women: Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) dies reaching from his bed for the redheaded vision of feminine beauty…

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Moments out of Time 1993

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 30 Number 1, January/February 1994, reprinted by permission]

age-of-innocence-1993-poster
The Age of Innocence

• Willing his warmest fantasy—Ellen Olenska’s embrace—into motion behind him, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) gazes out at a window-framed winter’s cape along the Hudson: the aesthetics of desire in The Age of Innocence

• The one that got away in Short Cuts: a woman’s body in the water, neither lady of the lake nor rainbow trout, just dead meat for Kodak consumption…

• Anyone of Johnny’s (David Thewlis) psychiatrically Socratic inquiries of a night’s worth of Naked pilgrims: to an affectless Elvira-punk in obligatory black lace, leather, and chains—”Would you describe yourself as a happy little person?”; to the thick Scottish lout whose head jerks in massive tics as he periodically bellows a lost girlfriend’s name into empty London streets—”What’s it like being you?”…

• Opening of Fearless: A blank-faced man (Jeff Bridges) clutching a child leads a gaggle of grimy refugees through rows of green cornstalks; disaster’s raw shock unanchored from time or place…

• The wired quiet and summer evening dark that presses up around a prairie farmhouse, death heavy in the air; the opening of Flesh and Bone

• Loveliest main-title sequence: The streets of Philadelphia, according to Bruce Springsteen and Jonathan Demme; promise of an epic of contemporary America—unfulfilled…

• Lizard climbing out of vase, The Scent of Green Papaya

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Moments out of Time 1972

[Originally published in Movietone News 20, January 1973]

Le Boucher: a flock of chickens pecking among the leaves in foreground; beyond, frenzied activity at the police station, and we know another grisly murder has come to punctuate, but curiously not to disturb, life in this small French village…

Albert Finney in Gumshoe
Albert Finney in Gumshoe

• Albert Finney’s exquisite gumshoe patter with the unseen Fat Man at the Plaza Hotel, down to and including a perfectly Bogartian “Sure!”—Gumshoe

• A long, single-take stroll down the main street of S1. Joseph, Mo., 1863: ”It is a sunny day”—Bad Company

• A duel of banjos, Deliverance

• Measuring penis lengths in Murmur of the Heart, and Benoît Ferreux’s breathless appreciation of his older brother’s endowment: “Splendide!”…

• Rusk’s visit to Brenda Blaney’s marriage and friendship bureau, Frenzy: from the moment she greets him as Mr. Robinson, we know; only after a tangled rape, as he sighs and with sublime weariness removes the stick-pin from his tie, does she know…

• Henry’s first joint, in Travels with My Aunt: in a perfectly played single take of several moments’ duration, Alec McCowen turns on completely unawares (“1 say, I’ve never smoked an American cigarette!”) and syllable by syllable sloughs several decades of British bank-clerkhood as he giggles on the Orient Express with an American abroad…

• Moving a cemetery, Deliverance

Le Boucher: a casual walk through town, with a Franco-Prussian War memorial passing between the camera and our protagonists, as Stéphane Audran’s schoolchildren swing on the chains round the monument and a local drives by with a load of freshly pruned boughs on his cart: death as the political and the natural order of things…

• Billie Whitelaw coming home in a raincoat, silhouetted in the dim hall as a late-night piano ruminates over “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You”, Gumshoe: she sizes up Finney poised over the keyboard in a well-placed cloud of cigarette smoke and then shuts off the phonograph….

• AI Lettieri, quintessential crude, bedridden, a black kitten on his bare chest, fondling blond bimbo Sally Struthers while her veterinarian-husband, bound and gagged, looks on The Getaway

Hannie Caulder: the thorough ineptitude of three bandit brothers played by Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam…

• The extraordinary delicacy of Peter Finch, Sunday Bloody Sunday

• The handsome emptiness of Joe Dallesandro’s face as he sexually uses and is used, Heatthe reality of the “nothingness” which Play It As It Lays skirts with such blasé gentility…

• The raid on the Dutchman’s farm; his hysterical gratitude to God for deliverance; the bloody aftermath—Ulzana’s Raid

• In The Last Picture Show, Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) watching Elizabeth Taylor on the Royal screen, in Father of the Bride, and thinking of her while kissing Charlene Duggs…

• Brando’s grotesque bumbling with ursine clumsiness and growling as he plays with his grandson in the garden, The Godfather: his sudden death agony appears to the child as just another variation of the game…

• The rough-and-tumble of an embryonic baseball game—Sennett-like yet convincingly inadvertent—climaxed by Cole Younger’s (Cliff Robertson) shooting the hide off the ball: The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid

• John Wayne and Slim Pickens sagging over a bar, The Cowboys

• The last three shots of The Other—frustrating as hell if one had been watching the wrong movie, but brilliantly right for the one Mulligan made…

• Jean Yanne peering through the window of the classroom as Stéphane Audran reads to her class about someone who emits “an air of grandeur … and profound feeling, such as to impress the coarsest of minds”: she unknowingly describes herself and her attraction for Popaul (Yanne), so like one of the children, to whom she must remain “Mademoiselle Hélène”—Le Boucher

• Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) at the tank, The Last Picture Show: “You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed”…

• Junior and Ace at the railway station—Junior Bonner

• The reconstitution of Casablanca at the end of Play It Again, Sam, especially Bogart’s appreciative “Here’s looking at you, kid!” for ace-nebbish Woody Allen…

• The perfect honesty and discretion with which Ed (Jon Voight) acknowledges, “I have some…” after Lewis (Burt Reynolds) has been mocking the idea of buying insurance—Deliverance

• All of Glenda Jackson’s unbilled cameo as The Star in The Boy Friend, especially her gully-washing tear flow as she simultaneously watches Twiggy displace her from her role and, trouper good and true, indulges in the professional sentimentality that enjoys seeing the kid get a break…

• Adam Wainwright’s (E. Kerrigan Prescott) hilarious striptease in the empty burlesque theatre, Roseland, the bumps and grinds saved from homosexual parody by the “new Adam’s” infectious delight and spontaneity…

• “Say, how’d that Jane Eyre turn out?” “Fine. Just fine.” Bad Company

• Rod Steiger’s fingers dancing an inverted fandango as his Mexican bandit searches for the word “destiny”—Duck, You Sucker

• In Play It Again, Sam, the manic depressiveness of Allen Felix (Woody Allen), who doesn’t bother to cook his TV dinners, just sucks them while they’re still frozen: “Did my wife never have an orgasm during our whole marriage, or was she faking that night?”…

• The moment when Le Boucher, inadvertently opening the schoolteacher’s cupboard and finding the lighter he left at the site of one of his murders, looks at us with fatal resignation…

• The beautifully detailed responses of Ed and Bobby (Jon Voight, Ned Beatty) to the taunting, unsatisfiable mountain men who just materialize out of the wilderness along the Cahulawassee—Deliverance

• A combined country-western dance and saloon brawl in Junior Bonner, in which everyone makes new friends: Sam Peckinpah’s version of the Life Force?…

• The superb ending of Heat: the movie star rushes in Swanson-like frenzy to trap her callous lover by the swimming pool, pulls her Sunset Blvd. rod—and it refuses to fire….

• The gradual disclosure of Nazi identity in “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in Cabaret: a setup, but a valid one…

• The epilogue to Macbeth: the forgotten brother, Donalbain, comes back and, sheltering along the witches’ wall, is attracted by their smoke; as he disappears into the hovel, a jug swinging from a branch in mid-screen caps a whole motif set in motion by Duncan’s crown rolling wildly on the floor during the murder: a stylistic prophecy beyond film’s end, a circle never to be closed as long as there are junior executives who dream of being Number One…

Le Boucher: being questioned by a police inspector called in from the city, Mlle. Hélène can’t help being distracted by the verbally unremarked blaze of silver in the man’s otherwise black head of hair: an ineffably weird index to the idiosyncrasies of Claude Chabrol’s film-world…

• A giddy gunfight among autumn-stripped trees, between two frightened teenagers and a bandit gang whom their leader has tried to protect from their intended victims (“If it was a blind woman in a wheelchair I’d give her the odds”): in a state of shock, the boys gradually realize they’re winning!—Bad Company

• The exultant sense of the high shot that zooms up and away from Eddie Ginley (Finney) as, having stalled the most intimate and crippling problems of his life in one automobile, he turns away from them, his own man—Gumshoe

• One of many devastating moral rebukes to the audience in Frenzy: after the innocent Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) has brought an auto jack down on the blond head under the bedclothes, with us thinking simultaneously “Don’t do it! You’ve been cleared of the other crimes!” and “Go ahead, give him what he has coming!”, he and we discover that the now-dented skull belongs not to the murderer Rusk but to yet another, already-strangled victim—and again the mind boggles, torn between relief and horror…

-In The King of Marvin Gardens, Ellen Burstyn burying her makeup and lotions in the cold sand of Atlantic City, symbolically celebrating her party’s anticipated departure for a tropic Pacific isle where health and wealth abound: her companions leave her, her giddy gaiety turns to shock and fear, and, retrieving a pair of scissors from the beach, she begins to mutilate her hair, flicking the tufts toward the fire before her—and not noticing they are carried away by the wind as soon as they leave her fingers…

The Last Picture Show: Sam the Lion looking into the boys more deeply than they know before watching them head out for Mexico…

• Huey and Dewey beating the overconfident Bruce Dern at poker with deadpan computer canniness—Silent Running

• Scatman Crothers jiving Diana Ross about what a superstud trick he’s going to be while shucking down to faded pink longjohns—as Ross quietly departs: Lady Sings the Blues

• When mother and son love each other so naturally that one involuntarily accepts this as the finest kind of sexual initiation for a boy coming into manhood, Murmur of the Heart; the beauty of the act momentarily returning one to prelapsarian innocence of any taboo…

• Sonny sitting on the curb watching Anarene’s one traffic light change, after learning of the death of Sam the Lion–The Last Picture Show

• A runaway cart hits a rock, four naked people soar through the air in a sitting position, and the top blows off a mountain: Duck, You Sucker

Bad Company: Big Joe (David Huddleston) shows the posse the gun trick he taught Curly Bill Brocius: “Boys—I’m the oldest whore on the block!”…

• The death of John Wayne, The Cowboys

Junior Bonner: a crazy song about rodeo-riding and getting thrown, with no lyrics, just Sam Peckinpah’s brawny sense of slapstick imagery and infallibly timed cutting, and a buzzer that goes BRRRRRRT!!…

• Attacked while escorting a woman and her son through Indian territory, a veteran Army trooper (Dean Swift) immediately rides away, but turns back at the woman’s frantic screams to shoot her between the eyes as she sighs a prayer of thanks for what she mistakes for rescue; a moment later, his horse shot from under him, he puts the same pistol in his own mouth and fires–death on Robert Aldrich’s frontier, Ulzana’s Raid

• The horses descending the brothel staircase in Romance of a Horsethief: the whores, led by Lainie Kazan, frantically attempt to distract drunken Cossack Yul Brynner’s attention from Eli Wallach’s latest refinement in horse-stealing…

Gumshoe: Finney’s third-person tough-guy recitation of imitation Hammett at Billie Whitelaw as he waits for his train to pull away, he still not fully aware that his favorite fictional fantasies are becoming reality, that the lady herself is suffering the sea-change his imaginative bid for sanity and survival is imposing on his world: “The pitch was, would the lady stick around?” and as the train pulls out, she recedes from him in a palpably Romantic movement…

• A promontory overlooking the river and farmlands of the Trémolat-Périgord region; schoolchildren on an outing; Stéphane Audran’s blonde head in the sun: and on one little girl’s biscuit, a splash of bright red blood appears as from the cloudless sky—Le Boucher

• The final scene in Sunday Bloody Sunday: Dr. David Hirsch (Peter Finch) in unexpected consultation with the audience in a shot that begins very un-subjectively and ends: “I only came about my cough”…

• Two of the Younger gang, naked to the waist to show their bullet-riddled torsos, stood on end in their coffins while townspeople gawk and take photographs—The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid

• Frames within frames within frames: The Boy Friend: onstage the understudy (Twiggy) who loves the leading man (Christopher Gable) sees him flirting offstage with another girl in the cast; shortly thereafter she breaks down in mid-scene and flees crying, leaving the pros to make repair—Children of Paradise it may not be, but it’ll do very nicely, thanks…

• The old capo‘s fine sense of dignity as he inquires whether Duvall can intervene in his execution, and his quiet acceptance of the inevitably negative reply—The Godfather

• Tuesday Weld cradling Tony Perkins, crooning her mother’s lullaby—”Baby, just remember … you belong to me”—while he suicides with seconal: one of the few scenes to sit still long enough to develop any viewer intensity, in Play It As It Lays

• Sophie Brzeska standing beside a great unsculpted block of stone, Savage Messiah, mute testament to the dead artist Gaudier-Brzeska whom we last see caught in photographed stasis holding a carved rifle butt…

• Woody Allen casually gestures with a hand holding a phonograph album and slings the record across the room—the climax of a veritable crescendo of gaucherie and awkwardness upon meeting his blind date (Jennifer Salt), Play It Again, Sam

• Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen trapped in an inexorably filling garbage truck; moments later, re-pledging what is left of their troth in the skeleton of a car in the dump: a concentration of Peckinpah’s vision of America and its outlaws, The Getaway

• The dancing duel between Tommy Tune and the black-haired girl in The Boy Friend

• Oliver Tobias’ and Eli Wallach’s literal horseplay as Wallach begs his friend to tell what he did in the fields with that countess—Romance of a Horsethief

• Peter Vaughan’s comic museum guard—a welcome respite from the preciosity of Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah

The Honkers: late-night confidences over a kitchen table: the neglected wife (Lois Nettleton) and the wayward husband’s friend and partner, a tired old rodeo clown who will die tomorrow (Slim Pickens)—a nice scene from a nice directorial debut by the late Steve Ihnat…

• The destruction-by-shotgun of a police car, The Getaway

• Robert Redford’s perfect shit-eating grin as, buttonholed in a rest room by an abusive taxpayer, he has to take it: there’s a political campaign underway in The Candidate

• Skinning a rabbit, Bad Company

• A cowhand (Matt Clark), apparently doomed to draw on a man he knows can kill him and will (Geoffrey Lewis), simply turns his back and says “Shiiiiit… ” with tears in his voice—one of several shrewd variations on convention that take us into the peculiar reality of The Culpepper Cattle Company

• The joy of battle for Alan Breck Stuart in Kidnapped: one more vividly dangerous performance out of Michael Caine…

• Afternoon in a bar, and the light that flared coldly in whenever the door opened: Fat City

• The rape in Frenzy: Brenda’s prayer filled with sexual imagery that subsequently turns up all over London (“I shall not fear the arrow by night…”); this in rhythmic counterpoint to Rusk’s groaning repetition of “Lovely … Lovely … Lovely”…

• In Le Boucher, the butcher appearing in costume as Louis XIV, cigarette in his mouth, to rehearse with the schoolchildren for the village pageant: we are focused on the back of Mlle. Hélène’s neck, and she suddenly turns, aware that Popaul has been worshipping that very part of her with his eyes: one of the tenderest, most intimate moments in the cinema…

• Big Joe’s philosophical tolerance of Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges) for pointing a gun at him: while he fills his pipe, he passes Jake some friendly advice on why you shouldn’t hesitate to shoot in circumstances like that, then draws his own piece and shoots Jake’s away—Bad Company

• George C. Scott’s hilarious–and beautifully built and delivered—”Power to the impotent!” speech in Hospital

• The decency of Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche) in SlaughterhouseFive

• Robert Duvall’s unflappable business cool in The Godfather: he receives with equanimity the verbal abuse of a Hollywood producer but momentarily crumbles as he must report the death of Sonny to Don Corleone…

• Some smoky Scandinavian brick standing in for turn-of-the-century New York, and the American prairie as itself—Joe Hill

Bad Company: the sudden death of Boog, whom Jake once warned not to be so quick in reaching for pies…

• Every encounter between the slimly determined self-protectiveness of Stéphane Audran and the beefy vulnerability of Jean Yanne in Le Boucher—but especially when he turns his knife against himself in an exact visual summing-up of the complex dangers and metamorphoses of love in that exquisitely calm and tortured film…

• The lesbian roommate at Andrea Feldman looking on incuriously as the blond manchild from the other apartment surveys her body with doglike appreciation and intently masturbates—Heat

• The moment when Dr. Gene Wilder stops indulging the Armenian shepherd’s tale of his love for Daisy the sheep and begins to share his fascination—Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask

• The guerrilla assault on a Paris supermarket, Tout va bien

• For a half moment, all the sounds in an all-night cafe and bowling alley stop: the shape of things to come for breaking-down pug Stacy Keach, Fat City

• The old girlfriend visits Eddie’s apartment at midnight as he prepares for bed: she mounts a fine attack on his habit of calling her every time he needs help, during which he brushes his teeth, then gargles and spits in the bowl—the character’s helpless amusement despite her best intentions of staying mad seems inseparable from Billie Whitelaw’s delight in how Finney has stolen her thunder: yet another moment of multileveled beauty from Gumshoe

• The last picture show in The Last Picture Show: Duane (Jeff Bridges) opining that the movie, Red River, was a pretty good show, and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) offhandedly replying, “I seen it here before”…

• Jack Elam’s emergence from the barbershop, hair glued to one of the ugliest skulls in cinematic history, his one good eye a-gleam with delight in his grotesque sartorial splendor—Hannie Caulder

• The hour of the wolf. The preternatural blackness of a distant shoreline marked by trees. The lake surface sheening away from our eyes. A dead man’s hand rises from it like a primordial·memory: the great penultimate shot of Deliverance, so full of the spirit lacking in the rest of this adaptation of James Dickey’s novel…

• Diana Ross’ simultaneously jittery and sleepy-eyed rendering of Billie Holiday’s blues in Lady Sings the Blues

• Woody Allen as the court jester frantically trying to get into the royal box: he tells the impassioned but chastity-locked queen, “We have to hurry because soon it’ll be the Renaissance and we’ll all be painting!”—Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex

Gumshoe: Eddie Ginley takes his cup of tea and cigarette, puts a Fifties-style disc on the record player, and starts learning to live without the family….

RTJ & KAM

© 1973 Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

Moments out of Time 1990

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 27 Number 1, January/February 1991, reprinted by permission]

• The hat in the forest, Miller’s Crossing

GoodFellas: The sheer, abstract, utterly genuine terror of the warehouse at the end of the block, where Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) wants Karen (Lorraine Bracco) to stop in and pick out a dress…

Landscape in the Mist: A snowfall magicks a whole town, every inhabitant transfixed, eyes turned skyward….

• Fourth of July fireworks in a puddle: the auspicious opening of Avalon

• Shorn by the German plane shot down by the Memphis Belle, the front half of the bomber full of new kids just breaks off and falls….

• More horrifying than the brute violence that precedes it, the victim-executioner bonhomie between Lilly (Anjelica Huston) and her mobster boss (Pat Hingle) in The Grifters: “That suit makes you look taller, Bobo.”…

• Stella Wynkowski (Elizabeth Perkins) slapping Harry Dobbs (Tom Berenger) in Love at Large, then turning face-front toward the bar: Harry rubs his cheek and registers dryly, “That’s the first time we’ve touched”…

• “Let go. Let go. LET GO. Let go.” Longtime Companion

• Was it we-hit-the-Italians-if-Frankie-doesn’t-call, or if-he-does? A crisis of professionalism for Gary Oldman and fellow Westies, in State of Grace

• Altman’s camera, in Vincent & Theo, careening deliriously about a vast field of sunflowers—an artist’s eye trying to find a way to catch and compose the sprawling largesse of reality…

• Gremlin become gargoyle—Gremlins 2

Postcards from the Edge: As Dennis Quaid concludes his romantic pitch to Meryl Streep, the “little white house with rose-covered trellis” that has subliminally backed his wooing is trucked away to another part of the studio lot….

• Christopher Walken registering the presence of the camera as he stands in the shower, King of New York

The Krays: Billie Whitelaw serving biscuits and tea to her monstrous sons and their bully boys-just another batch of male children to put up with and coddle…

• New cop Jamie Lee Curtis hitching up her trousers before sitting down—Blue Steel

• Dan Hedaya finding 37 ways to read the line “I’m not arguing that with you!”—Joe vs. the Volcano

• David Watkin’s masterly lighting of the Ghost (Paul Scofield) in Hamlet, so that the figure seems to wrap the world in the grayness of the grave, without recourse to SPFX…

Reversal of Fortune: The practiced way Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) maneuvers Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) out of his Upper East Side apartment once his conviction has been overturned: when the spotlight of von Bülow’s focused charm switches off, Dershowitz ceases to exist….

Presumed Innocent: Greta Scacchi kisses off Harrison Ford in mid-conversation when he can’t measure up to her ruthless expectations; like a man who remains standing moments after he’s been shot, he doesn’t even know he’s dead .. ”

• The bemused gallantry of Hector Elizondo’s hotel manager in Pretty Woman

• What you might see if someone shoved you up through a manhole cover on a busy street: Darkman

Mo’ Better Blues: the band ragging Giancarlo Esposito about his Frenchwoman…

• Projector beam from terra-cotta lion’s mouth, Cinema Paradiso

• Anaïs (Maria de Medeiros) discovers Henry (Fred Ward) in a movie theater watching Ecstasy, and touches his shoulder. He turns, his face wet with tears, blank with passion—Henry & June….

• Waiting for John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) to call “Action!”—White Hunter, Black Heart

Dances with Wolves: John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) wakes out of a sound sleep to find everything in his sod house shaking, as a great buffalo herd moves through the night like thunder, like ghosts…

Awakenings: De Niro ambushed by waves of uncontrollable tics and twitches as he tries to talk with the girl he has a crush on; a 40-year-old man caught in an adolescent’s worst nightmare…

• The father (Hugues Quester), making seduction chat with his daughter’s friend (Anne Teyssèdre), finds he can’t snap the piece of kindling as casually as he’d like, and stuffs it into the fireplace—A Tale of Springtime….

• A permanently suspended ellipsis, I Love You to Death: Keanu Reeves’s “You know, having sex with a kangaroo… ”

• Middle-of-the-night supper with Mom (Catherine Scorsese) as, in the driveway outside, someone/-thing thumps in the car trunk—GoodFellas

• The sound from the bathtub as Henry (Michael Rooker) renders Otis (Tom Towles) for disposal—Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

• Having put a bullet into his quarry at point-blank range, Nick Nolte climbs up the steps from the cellar entrance of the social club and, swinging his back to the low-slung camera, lifts his police badge to quell the floodtide of revelers pouring forth from every door—Q&A….

• The way Alec Baldwin lets Junior’s mouth fall open, during moments of repose, in Miami Blues—like that of an animal panting in the shade, or Marilyn Monroe thinking…

• The way Samantha Mathis smiles at Christian Slater in the library, Pump Up the Volume: she can’t believe the delicious inappropriateness of this nerd as the rebel voice of her nighttime dreams….

• The momentary reflection of light in a predator’s eye, as Myra (Annette Bening) waits in the dark outside Lilly’s motel—The Grifters

• The roadside accident, Wild at Heart

Miller’s Crossing: The Dane (J.E. Freeman), advancing across the room to menace Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), leans sideways to avoid bumping an overhead light….

• Harvey Keitel’s last moments in The Two Jakes

• Debra Winger, her flesh glowing beneath her half-opened blue robe, queries her husband cryptically: “Isn’t it time for you to rub my tummy?”—The Sheltering Sky

• Magician-pickpocket transmutes purloined wallet into white dove—Henry & June

• The zoned-out glamour of Anne Archer in Love at Large

• The white, shocked face of Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) as The Dane drives him deeper into the woods; a cold wind creaking the trees—the precise sound of death to an Irishman: Miller’s Crossing

• The cat licking the salt of the dead mother’s tears, May Fools

• Frankie (Ed Harris), in mid-conference with the capo, shamefacedly brushing away the crumbs from his roll—State of Grace

• The teen daughter watching as, in the shattered mirror, her mother and father lock in terminal conjugal combat—C’est la vie

Alice (Mia Farrow), under the influence of a mystic-East potion, flirting with the attractive father (Joe Mantegna) in the hall of her kids’ school…

• Family portrait through a window, Blue Steel: father’s arm around wife as they regard their daughter and her new beau. What’s really framed are permutations of power and impotence, threat and appeasement, men and women merging and at war….

Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) freeing his white mice along the railroad tracks…

Mountains of the Moon—Fiona Lewis and lain Glen meeting for the first time outside the chambers where the man they both love is being discredited as an explorer: the robustly beautiful New Woman takes in and dismisses her rival, a dying breed of brave, tainted British manhood….

• A new William Buckley for the talkshow circuit, Gremlins 2

• Steve Martin and Rick Moranis’s dance in My Blue Heaven

Vincent & Theo: Van Gogh (Tim Roth) has been mechanically sketching the Dutch prostitute; his interest quickens only when she takes a break from posing, and absentmindedly squats atop a chamber pot to pee….

• A little girl growing old in a painting, The Witches

• The grave, delicate sensuousness of Kate Capshaw as a rancher’s wife, Love at Large

• The tunnel through the hill, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

The Grifters: Lilly’s animal, half-sexual grief as she howls and humps over the corpse she loved…

The Sheltering Sky: Debra Winger’s terrible, toneless cry after she and John Malkovich have fruitlessly tried to anchor in each other on “the sharp edge of the world”…

• The documentary footage in Awakenings: patient (Robert De Niro) pulling doctor (Robin Williams) into the frame with him, to shake his hand and press human connection upon him…

• Henry Miller, a voyeur on a snowy Brooklyn fire escape, gets a window slammed on his necktie by his wife’s lesbian lover—Henry & June (no wonder he later loves Un Chien andalou!)…

Landscape in the Mist: A girl and a boy in futile embrace in the middle of an empty highway that spans a sea of darkness…

• “Excuse me, you think I’m funny?” Joe Pesci as Tommy De Vito in GoodFellas

Miller’s Crossing: the camera traveling along the throat of the gramophone, pulling back to frame the golden bell of the speaker as the eloquence of Frank Patterson’s “Danny Boy” and the Coen brothers’ cinematic ecstasy simultaneously crest…

RTJ/KAM

[reprinted by permission of Film Comment]

Moments out of Time 1979

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

The Tree of Wooden Clogs: Interloping in the landowner’s courtyard, the young swain is frightened off into the night by the landowner himself, mysteriously banished from the musical soiree in his own parlor. In the barns, animals stir. A coachman waiting to drive his wealthy employers home steps to a tree to relieve himself. In midstream he glances up: snow has begun to fall. In the peasants’ quarters an old man slips out of bed to go spread chicken droppings on his private garden; the droppings will keep warm the earth, and in the spring he will have the first tomatoes. The mysterious, miraculous rhythms of life as discovered by Ermanno Olmi…

10: Stopped at a red light, and at a crucial intersection in his 42-year-old life, George Webber (Dudley Moore) glances left to behold a vision in a frame—a bride (Bo Derek) on the way to her wedding—and becomes locked in comic, erotic, and quite magnificent obsession…

Saint Jack
Saint Jack

• Riding a pushcart through the Singapore night, proper auditor William (Denholm Elliott) says to his companion, in abashed delight: “I say, Jack, you’re a ponce, aren’t you?”—Saint Jack

• The talismans of married life dropped with absolute finality on a hall table: Joanna (Meryl Streep) is leaving and Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is refusing to get the picture—Kramer vs. Kramer

• The alternate beginnings to Ike Davis’s—and Woody Allen’s—epic of Manhattan; especially the night shot of the El crawling past the lighted stadium…

Picnic at Hanging Rock: Miranda (Anne Lambert) opens the gate to the picnic area, startles a flock of birds, and turns her head to follow their wheeling flight as the images overlap one another: the beginning of a ballet of mystery for Peter Weir’s camera; layers of style as milestones of a hedonistic pilgrimage…

• The beach fire beyond Frank’s car as he (Gerald Kennedy) and Amy (Wendy Hughes) edge toward another uneasy couplingNewsfront

• Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) absently singing a love song about “the two of us” as she strides away on the smalltown sidewalk: “The Shape” eases his dark shoulder into right foreground, and an eerie betrothal is madeHalloween

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Moments out of Time 1971

[Originally published in Movietone News 10, January 1972]

Recalled by Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

The Conformist

• Every moment Dominique Sanda’s feline beauty appears in The Conformist or, more specifically: Dominique Sanda’s Sternbergian entrance under a bare, harsh, deifying light bulb; Dominique Sanda’s hands-in-pockets slouch down the hallway, a cigarette dangling from her lips; Dominique Sanda stripping down the top of her sweat suit and advancing on Trintignant…

• Dustin Hoffman and Susan George chewing gum at each other in Straw Dogs

• McCabe’s drunken monologue of his love for Mrs. Miller: “She won’t be sweet without money… ”

• Jane Fonda taking over a bar, infiltrating the space of one male after another, during a single lengthy telephoto take in Klute

• The frumpy wife’s aphrodisiac dance in Taking Off, followed in time by Lynn Carlin’s reenactment in the hotel room, with a load on…

• Jack Nicholson, in Carnal Knowledge, asked by Ann-Margret whether it wouldn’t be all right for her to shack up with him, thinking the matter over with desperate self-possession, even though he’s perched nude on the edge of a leather chair, interrupted on his course to the shower…

• The last shot of The Devils, the end of the world…

Medea: Callas’ strangely aware eyes, wide open as Jason makes love to her, as though she foresees his desertion even then; she closes them quite consciously as if to shut out that vision for the moment….

• Susan George’s child-woman sexiness in Straw Dogs, so consummately good it takes a second look to realize what a superb performance hers is (the same applies to the film)…

• Forty or fifty people reading international newspapers, modeling clothes, and having a last elegant holiday in the hotel lobby, Death in Venice

Dirty Harry: that high-overhead shot of Callahan grinding his foot into Scorpio’s wounded leg in the middle of a football stadium (makes you wonder if those critics busy calling this film “Fascist” think football is too)…

• Jack Palance’s memory of a golden summer when he was one of The Horsemen

• The instant when Buck Henry, singing drunk and nude, standing in the center of the poker table, meets ,the eyes of his runaway daughter—Taking Off

• Ryan O’Neal sitting against the wall of a cantina, his own blood filling his hands, the certain knowledge that his and William Holden’s spree has come irreparably to grief in his eyes, muttering “God damn. God damn!”—The Wild Rovers

• The trees creaking in the wind: the murder in The Conformist

• That quiet little slip in The Go-Between which unobtrusively indexes the boy’s personal irrelevance to Julie Christie and foreshadows his-whole future: Christie’s tenderly bandaged his knee—cut by her lover’s axe—and after he’s recounted every item of information about the lover, she turns and says, “Now, let’s see to that knee.”….

• Dustin Hoffman’s oddly breaking voice as he screams “Bas-tuurds! Bas-tuurds!” over and over after the shooting of the Major—the turning-point from sanity to madness, passivity to resolution, tentativeness to wholeness in Straw Dogs

• The irises-in on moments of potentiality in The Wild Child, infinitely tender and as awesomely large as the whole art and history of motion pictures…

• Old Lodge Skins’ indifference to the fact that he has not died at the end of Little Big Man. Arthur Penn’s variation on the ending of the novel, and his film’s sole excuse for existence…

• “Ode to a Screw” in Taking Off

• A chicken trying to hatch a Volkswagen throughout Intimate Lighting

• A termite mound in The Hellstrom Chronicle looking eerily like the monolith in 2001: one of those most effective moments in the film when the director cunningly used a science-fiction echo to render his pseudo-documentary more chillingly familiar to viewers…

McCabe and Mrs. Miller: McCabe’s first sight of Butler, the company killer, recounting a story to the boys at Sheehan’s place; Butler gives McCabe a cursory glance, says “I’ll be with you in a minute,” and goes on with his story…

• Buck Henry performing his anti-smoking exercise in the park and attracting a Black Power salute from a passing brother—Taking Off; the best-timed gag of the year…

• A rainy morning, a little before dawn, in a small Texas town—Two-Lane Blacktop

• Another long telephoto take, this one of Donald Sutherland and his friends running along the beach in Alex in Wonderland confessing their most recent masturbation; in the course of their giggling, klutzy jog, they regress about twenty years in age…

• Howard Cosell bringing you the Presidential assassination in San Marco, before the credits of Woody Allen’s Bananas

• The moment when Jean-Louis Trintignant lifts his hat from the hotel bed and reveals Stefania Sandrelli’s tush under it—The Conformist

• The shelter in the rain, Claire’s Knee

• Mike Snell cracking up in Derby when the national anthem unexpectedly fails to play properly: one of the most complex and illuminating moments of truth upon truth upon truth in that singular film… –

• The lovers’ departure in Chikamatzu Monogatari: they have been framed by a static shot, the dark masses of buildings around them as they make their final deliberations; they set off down the street, the camera advances after them, and a whole stable black shape at the lefthand and top of the frame suddenly winks away: a fantastic realization of cosmic shift , by a master of mise-en-scène…

• Also, the literally breathtaking crane of the camera out over the brink of the hillside as the lovers pursue one another down its side; the movement is carried through in the next shot as the camera ducks down and in under the lean-to where the pursued lover attempts to hide….

• The cinema’s second-most-astonishing use of Also sprach Zarathustra: the apparition of the world’s most grossly wrinkled bum outside the flophouse at the beginning of Dynamite Chicken

• In the midst of John Ford’s Monument Valley, Joe Don Baker shielding the eyes of the last of The Wild Rovers from the sun by holding his hat over the man’s face: a direct homage on Blake Edwards’ part to Ford’s 3 Godfathers, when John Wayne did the same for Harry Carey Jr….

• William Holden reminiscing out loud about his friendship with Ryan O’Neal, The Wild Rovers, apparently conducting a normal conversation by a campfire until he says, “Man-just-don’t-know-shit!” and covers his dead friend’s face…

• Woody Allen attempting to be unobtrusive about buying a sex magazine—Bananas

• The opening shot of The Horsemen: the camera plane circles over Afghanistan, taking in hundreds of miles as it pivots on a single trumpeter poised on the mountainside…

The Beguiled: the little girl’s smile as she helps bury Clint Eastwood whom she has killed with poisoned mushrooms: she’s been initiated into sisterhood…

• Jane Fonda’s cosmopolitan performance for the old businessman in Klute

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death: the white plump flesh of the redheaded vampire-girl as she rises dripping out of the lake…

The Night of the Living Dead: the little girl’s hunger-driven face as she approaches her mother to hack her to death…

• Hermie buying the rubbers—and also an unwanted strawberry cone with sprinkles—in Summer of ’42

• Popeye Doyle screaming straight into New York City traffic, knowing he has to get that frog on the elevated above him, and to hell with the rest of the world: Gene Hackman’s furious, exasperated, why-won’t-you-people-learn pounding on the steering wheel nails down the whole chase in The French Connection and maybe the entire film—which is one ferocious chase all the way to the last enigmatic gunshot….

• The last moments of This Man Must Die, in which our revenge killer suddenly and absolutely convincingly metamorphoses into a doomed hero of tragic myth…

• An après-chase lull in Taking Off when Buck Henry and the mother of the runaway girl he spotted wordlessly consider having an affair; he gets a phone call and it’s all over…

• The dancehall sequence in The Conformist that feels like one serpentine camera movement but isn’t really: especially the first disclosure of Manganiello’s presence at the table diagonally opposite, and Trintignant’s getting simultaneously embraced and bound by the conga line…

• That incredible opening shot in Dirty Harry when the camera zooms back from a yellow-suited girl in a glittering blue rooftop swimming pool, to show her and all of San Francisco under Scorpio’s gun; also the whole city seeming to turn on Clint Eastwood’s shoulders as he climbs up there a couple screen moments later…

• Robert Mitchum watching his son make out in Going Home: a whole class of American male is indexed in that throwaway moment effortlessly, unpretentiously, and succinctly….

• McCabe discovered at the beginning of McCabe and Mrs. Miller by a lazy panning movement that picks him out of the rainy grey-green blur of Northwest fir trees and establishes him as the man to realize this one place and this one moment in time…

• Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey’s I-don’t-know-whether-1’ll-take-this-subway-or-not act in The French Connection

• The look on Buck Henry’s face-sheer naked childish disillusionment-when he hears that his daughter’s hirsute boyfriend made $290,000 last year: in Taking Off

• John Moulder Brown frantically trying to know what’s going on in there after Jane Asher and Karl Michael Vogler disappear into the bath chamber in Deep End

• The gamut of expressions on Rip Torn’s face, in the middle of the night and of Coming Apart as Sally Kirkland does something to his posterior…

RTJ & KAM

© 1972 Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

Something to Do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]

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A Fistful of Dollars

Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was American—what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwood—true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the Cinecittà interiors. And the faces of the supporting cast—swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selections—became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.

A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categories—director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.

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Review: Windows

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

When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scène to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

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

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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Review: Time After Time

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

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: The Black Marble

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

The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble might have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novel’s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh cop’s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writing’s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policeman’s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his cops’ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble (which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Becker’s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.

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Review: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

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

I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.

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Review: American Gigolo

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

Here’s the problem: (1) American Gigolo has just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolo is not a good movie, no matter that it’s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage is—far from being a weakness—essential to the film’s design.

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Review: Halloween

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

A thing that bugs me about the vast majority of contemporary films is, they rarely give the feeling anyone cared much about framing them. The movement away from studio (i.e., factory) filmmaking has had a lot to do with this. Advancements in film speed, equipment mobility, and other such factors that ought to have been unqualifiedly liberating have had the counterproductive effect of encouraging slovenliness rather than responsible flexibility. A movie can get made anywhere now, one place is as good (i.e., workable) as another—and somehow that extends to frame-space as a “place” too. Throw in careless labwork (we waved byebye to real Technicolor several years ago) and you’ve got smeary colors and big, fuzzy grain to help reduce definition, and definitiveness of vision. It’s hard to maintain faith that a given movie had to look the way it does, because it could just as well have looked, well, a little different.

People won’t be talking about this as they leave their naborhood moviehouse, but one reason John Carpenter’s Halloween is so successful a marrow-freezer is that Carpenter appears to have set out to reinstate scrupulous, meaningful framing all by himself. In fact, except for its shamelessly (and irresistibly) zingy music score (by the director), Halloween achieves its considerable power almost entirely through visual means. There’s not a lot of scenario—make that screenplay—to deal with; indeed, the least satisfying thing about Halloween is its attempt to arrive at some scriptoral accounting for its ultraweird dispenser of mayhem, an Omen-era, cosmic-evil reading—”He” really can’t be stopped—that rings too familiar. At the same time, the nonending ending Halloweenreaches has a validity missing from more flagrantly copout conclusions where the filmmakers more or less simultaneously ran out of running time and ideas of what to do next. For Carpenter’s direction has undercut the idea of a world with any secure breathing-room, let alone a sanctum for salvation.

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