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by Robert C. Cumbow

Contributor

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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In Black & White: gawlDurgnat

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

THE STRANGE CASE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK, or The Plain Man’s Hitchcock. By Raymond Durgnat. MIT Press. 429 pages. $15.00.

For me, Raymond Durgnat has become, over a period of years, The Man You Love to Disagree With. Not that he doesn’t often strike exactly home, or express wonderfully well what oft was thought. It’s just that he nearly always qualifies or obfuscates his arguments into obscurity or outrageous contrivance. The margins of his newest book, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, invite—in fact, insist on—the scribbled objections of inveterate Hitchcockians of almost any camp.

Subtitled The Plain Man’s Hitchcock, the book is both exhilarating and exasperating: exhilarating because it is the most complete and ambitious critical examination yet of Hitchcock’s entire body of work, and bids fair to become a definitive source for future Hitchcock criticism; exasperating because in more than 400 pages it never manages to become what it could have been. For one thing, it is hardly a “Plain Man’s Hitchcock,” since the facts on Hitchcock’s life and work, together with a good but simplistic summary of all previous Hitchcock commentary, are confined to two prefatory chapters; the specific analysis of the films, which comprise nearly 350 pages of the text, are neither comprehensive nor—even in the attempt—definitive.

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Out of the Past: Get to Know Your Rabbit

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Get to Know Your Rabbit represents a transition in the work of Brian De Palma, from the unrestrained precocity of his grainy independents Greetings (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970) to the more controlled and purposeful talent critics have seen in his recent films Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Genre-parody is clearly one of the beacons of De Palma’s career so far; and what Get to Know Your Rabbit boils down to is a parody of dropping-out films. De Palma’s drop-out here, Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers, characteristically naïve in a role that really calls for the more complex subtlety Robert De Niro brought to the earlier two films), drops all the way: from promising junior executive with an expensive apartment and a sexy mistress, to lonely flophouse roomer seeking a new lifestyle by attending a sleazy school for tap-dancing magicians. Informing the film’s plot are the untiring efforts of Beeman’s former supervisor Turnbull (superbly played by John Astin) to, first, get Donald to come back to work, and, when that fails, to build around Donald (and without his knowledge) a multimillion-dollar corporation devoted to training executive drop-outs to be tap-dancing magicians and managing their road tours through fifth-string night spots in bush-league towns.

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Caliban in Bodega Bay

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.

At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.

Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.

‘The Birds’ – In the diner

Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.

And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.

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Review: Sssssss

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Like Bug, its current traveling companion, Sssssss (which made the rounds as a top feature in 1973) is a preposterous horror film that never quite gets itself organized enough to make you want to suspend that old disbelief. But it is definitely the better half of the double feature, if for no other reason than that Bernard Kowalski knows a little bit more about making movies than Jeannot Szwarc. Kowalski, a Corman alumnus, knows enough, for example, to play for comedy until he can win audience credulity with more fully developed characters and situations. He knows how to understate, build atmosphere, and even create a middling suspense sequence now and again. And if he hasn’t yet made a good movie, his efforts have not been without their fringe benefits: the memorable caricature of sweaty, sleazy Everglades lowlifes in Attack of the Giant Leeches; the sustained transposition of masculine and feminine sexual imagery in Night of the Blood Beast; the color composition and special effects of Krakatoa—East of Java; and the Fulleresque mise-en-scène of Stiletto.

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Review: ‘French Connection II’

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

The main strength of William Friedkin’s The French Connection lay in the driving pace of its montage, which assembled the film’s fragmentary narrative into a single, compelling forward movement toward the climax and the inevitable results of Detective “Popeye” Doyle’s recklessness, revealed in the cryptic final title. John Frankenheimer has, by contrast, always leaned heaviest on frame composition to express his vision, and as a result his new film is a French Connection of quite a different cut.

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Review: ‘Bug’

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Because it tries to become a new film every 15 or 20 minutes, Bug seems about three times as long as its hour-and-a-half. The effect is, I am sure, the unintended result of both cast’s and crew’s having no idea at all what they wanted to do with the film. It begins as an effort to fuse the horror picture with the disaster epic: in the first reel we have a heat wave, an earthquake, several horrible conflagrations, and the emergence into human affairs of a plague of subterranean beetles capable of starting fires by rubbing together their flinty appendages. The beasties subsist on carbon, which they lap from inside the exhaust systems of automobiles. Bradford Dillman plays Jim Parmiter, a neo–St. Francis of a biology teacher who bemoans humanity’s loss of the primordial power of communication with the animals. He finds his hobbyhorse in the firebugs and in a reversal of the usual invaders-from-beyond formula tries to find a way of keeping the bugs alive when they begin to die from reduced pressure on the earth’s surface. He preserves one female firebug in a diving helmet and mates her with a common cockroach, naming the hybrid species for himself and for the Greek god of fire: Parmitera hephaestus. First the bugs destroy their parent, the last of the firebugs; then they reveal themselves to be carnivores, eating only raw meat, and only as a group; then they show themselves capable of communication with Parmiter by arranging their bodies on the wall so as to spell out words; then they are once again no different in appearance or behavior from their mother, eating carbon and making fire; and finally they prove capable of tactical organization, flight, and divination, luring Parmiter to his Promethean doom in the fault through which their forebugs entered the world. Both they and the good doctor sink into the earth, and the fault seals up again.

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Review: ‘Posse’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

All right. Posse is an unusual Western. But not that unusual. And it doesn’t end like nothing I’ve ever seen. In fact, it ends very much like a number of other films I’ve seen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was only the first of several to come to mind). The sociopolitical message of the confrontation between a brilliant outlaw and a self-serving politician offers little that Abe Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here didn’t provide with greater subtlety—and few people have ever accused Polonsky of understatement. Posse really doesn’t have much to say, old or new, yet it does keep insisting. The grizzled typesetter’s comment that “All politicians are full of shit” might as well have Author’s Message flashed over it. A flagrant anachronism, neither appropriate nor cute, is the remark of a newspaper editor—a double amputee whom we are forced to think of in terms of Vietnam—that “This is the age of New Journalism.” And it’s not clear whether the highly visible eagle logo at the beginning and end of the film—”To the Polls, Ye Sons of Freedom”—is intended to exhort (we should all go out and vote to keep Howard Nightingales out of office) or to ring ironically (why vote at all when “all politicians are, etc.”?). This has less to do with ambiguity than with sloppiness, a sloppiness that carries over to the film’s style.

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Mad Rooms: Shot Composition in Two Films of Bernard Girard

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

MAD ROOMS
Shot Composition in Two Films
of Bernard Girard

-Main Title-

For nearly three decades, Bernard Girard has been one of the invisible men of the American cinema. Briefly lionized for his independent feature A Public Affair (1962) and hesitantly applauded for Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), he has remained otherwise unrenowned if not altogether unknown. In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris begins Girard’s career 18 years late (of twelve films in which he was involved between 1948 and 1966, Girard wrote nine and directed five) but properly assesses an aura of bleakness in the director’s approach:

Bernard Girard has made an interesting debut as writer-director of Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round, but it is difficult to imagine where he can go from here. Dead Heat seems complete and definitive as the expression of a chilling sophistication in the treatment of the big caper genre. There is something so inhuman in the directorial attitude revealed that Dead Heat seems like a dead end.

The following year, reviewing Girard’s The Mad Room for The Village Voice, Sarris came closer to defining that bleakness: “The point in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round is that we are all more or less crooked, and in The Mad Room that we are all more or less crazy, two considerable half-truths that require plots of more originality than Girard has thus far availed himself.”

In fact, originality or none, Girard is a director who has done his most memorable work trying to breathe fresh life into old genres. Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and The Mad Room, which remain his two most-seen films, are built on the respective foundations of the bank-caper gimmick and the horror-of-personality idea. If he has not had the success that many other genre-oriented directors have enjoyed, it is due largely, I think, to an inability to establish an effective relationship between plot development and montage. Girard simply is not a montage director; and—odd for a screenwriter—he is not an especially literary one, either. His films just don’t hold together well enough, either sequentially or thematically (although, in this regard, his objections to producers’ final cut of The Mad Room should be recalled).

But what impresses me consistently about Girard is the occasional brilliance of his mise-en-scène. He possesses a painterly sense of composition which, though it emerges only now and again, enables him admirably to fit an entire story into his frame and still leave room to breathe. This sensitivity for composition extends not only to framing but to camera movement as well; Girard’s shot composition becomes, at its best, a kind of kinetic painting. And, lest it be objected that the composition could be the work of a competent cinematographer, since Girard himself seems mediocre in all other aspects, I must hasten to point out that similar compositional techniques of the highest quality may be observed in both Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round and The Mad Room, products of two different cinematographers (Lionel Lindon and Harry Stradling Jr., respectively).

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Review: Dog Day Afternoon

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The montage with which Sidney Lumet begins Dog Day Afternoon is at pains to get across to us just what things were like in Brooklyn at 2:57 p.m., August 22, 1972, right before a minor bank robbery became a major Event. The montage—shot and assembled as if nothing had changed in film since 1967—emphasizes people, their clothing, their attitudes, their activities on a hot afternoon. But one shot doesn’t quite belong; it draws our eyes away from the peopled street to a theater marquee, held at top-center-screen, announcing A STAR IS BORN. That wasn’t a new movie in town in ’72; and its revival at the time has no bearing on the events of Dog Day Afternoon. Lumet is really interested in the four words on the marquee only because they summarize his attitude toward the subject of his film, a sexually eccentric neurotic who attracted national attention that afternoon when he held up a bank, took hostages, and demanded a jet airliner to fly him out of the country. Never one to trust an audience, Lumet holds the shot about three times as long as necessary for us to get the point. It’s a mistake he has made frequently throughout his career, bloating many otherwise promising films. Hold too many shots too long, even by just a couple seconds, and before you know it your movie’s an hour too long. Like Dog Day Afternoon.

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Summer of ’89: ‘Vampire’s Kiss’

Beginning with Nosferatu, the vampire has been depicted on film largely as a symbol of pestilence visited upon cities. Just as disease wreaks greatest havoc on places of densest population, the classic vampire sought out the most crowded hunting grounds—the better to find an abundance of prey and the security of anonymity. The traditional movie vampire terrorizes a chosen city, plunging it into despair and either mobilizing it into search-and-destroy retribution, as in most Dracula-based films, or annihilating it utterly, as in Werner Herzog’s fierce reimagining of Nosferatu from 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre.

But in the summer of 1989, vampirism became instead a symbol of contemporary urban angst. Far from a city in terror, the New York of Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is indifferent to, if not completely unaware of, the menace lurking in its midst. Face it: It takes a lot to faze a New Yorker, especially in the era of Gordon Gecko. In Vampire’s Kiss, no one is afraid of, or even especially impressed with, the vampire Peter Loew has become. Or thinks he’s become.

An upwardly mobile white-collar white male from a privileged background, replete with phony mid-Atlantic accent (listen to him pronounce his surname) and sick to death of being always an agent and never an author, Peter Loew was the perfect vessel for a still-young Nicolas Cage to cap his growing reputation for over-the-top characterizations. For both Cage and Loew, self-induced madness becomes the highest form of creativity.

The character’s not-quite-successfully sublimated discontentment manifests itself early in the film, when we become aware of his propensity for dating (or making moves on) women darker than he. Maybe he’s attracted by their exoticism. Maybe he thinks they’re easier than white girls. Maybe he’s indulging a barely suppressed fascination with the marginalized elements of society. Or maybe it’s simply a reassertion of white-male dominance. Peter’s one of the privileged white guys, adventuring with women of other races, but his “perfect match,” Sharon (Jessica Lundy), and the validating female psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley) who picks her for him, are both white. The whole thing perfectly encapsulates the Reagan-Bush era tension between politically correct liberalism and the neo-conservatism of post-Wall Street greed (for want of a better word).

Rachel (Jennifer Beals) is Peter’s dark angel, almost certainly a figment of his imagination. Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) seems to be his steady date, though he does more to screw up the relationship than to further it, and it eventually ends, leaving Peter to walk a tightwire between the deadly lure of Rachel and the everyday workplace challenges of his office assistant, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, downplaying her usual sexy glamour in a genuinely affecting portrayal of one of the city’s many faceless lost). Rachel begins appearing to him after a bat flies into the window of his midtown apartment and either does or doesn’t bite him (we can’t really tell, just as we can’t tell a vampire bat from the ordinary, potentially rabid, kind), bringing his date with Jackie to an unexpected climax. Vampire’s Kiss treats Peter’s vampirism as, among other things, a misogynist fantasy—a vain attempt at securing power—while allowing us to recognize what Peter doesn’t: that Alva, object of his office abuse and harassment, is the one he really wants.

The vampire has ever been the emblem of a dying aristocracy: Dracula and his progeny laid claim to titles and estates in Middle Europe, and the nightmares they visited upon towns in Germany, Britain, and—by proxy—the United States were the nightmares that a privileged and decadent upper class visits upon the poor and the working mercantile class. Vampire’s Kiss offers a new economic analysis of vampirism: the decadence of the capitalist system at the time of its worst excesses (now felt in the new millennium and limned with dark comic effect in The Wolf of Wall Street). Granted, Peter is no stockbroker. Rachel calls him, perhaps tauntingly, “my little literary genius,” and there’s no question that his embrace of vampirism reflects his unfulfilled desire to be the kind of literary luminary he can only work for. He doesn’t see himself in the mirror, even though we do—an epitome of Peter’s lack of self-understanding and his propensity for self-delusion.

At the height of his embrace of vampirism, oblivious to the fact that his fangs are plastic, the gun turned on him fires blanks, and his coffin is an overturned cheap armoire, he urges, “I’m a vampire…I can prove it!” He’s desperately seeking acknowledgment, the validation that his world has denied him. And he finally gets it, not from his psychiatrist, but in a climax reminiscent of that of George Romero’s Martin, which as early as 1977 treated very differently the exploits of a similar contemporary urban vampire (or vampire wannabe).

I don’t know much about Bierman (a “subject for further research,” as Andrew Sarris might have put it), but he had an eye on him, I’ll give him that. His sense of the city at its emptiest times and the unforgiving loneliness of crowds at its fullest, of the sunrise-sunset bookending essential to the vampire film, of the inattention of the workaday “public” to the urgency of the individual’s needs, culminating in Cage’s Peter literally talking to a post, is heady stuff. Vampire’s Kiss, pretty much never recognized, is even more important today than it was in the summer of 1989.

Originally published at Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door.

Review: Phase IV

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Saul Bass’s first feature film seems consciously to take as its premise the conviction of the mythical Dr. Nils Hellstrom that insects, given the opportunity, will inherit the earth. Phase IV offers a more startling hypothesis than The Hellstrom Chronicle, however, suggesting a set of circumstances in which ants, their capacity for organization developed into an awesome organizational intelligence, no longer need to wait for humanity to pass away, but set out to take the earth by force. Some of the advertising for the film has stated that the ants are controlled from Outer Space, but there is nothing in the movie that quite justifies this description. The only information the film gives us about the ants’ sudden acquisition of technical and tactical intelligence is that it occurs as the result of an anticipated change, implicitly associated with some astronomical event. When a biological imbalance—characterized by a decrease in ant-predators and an increase in ant population and aggression—occurs in an Arizona desert, a renowned biologist and an accomplished data systems analyst set up a research lab in a prefabricated geodesic dome in the affected area to pursue means of combating the situation.

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SIFF 2013: ‘Byzantium’

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed in Neil Jordan’s second coming to the vampire myth, Byzantium. Even seen solely as a vampire film Byzantium far surpasses Jordan’s 1994 Interview with the Vampire—and pretty much everything else in the genre. But while Jordan’s and scenarist Moira Buffini’s expansion of Buffini’s stage play A Vampire Story can be enjoyed as a straightforward—albeit narratively complex—vampire tale, it is much more. The familiar tropes of vampire lore (to which Irish folklore has contributed at least as much as middle-European) become, under Jordan’s skilled hand and eye, haunting visual metaphors for the tyranny of the body, the marginalization of the outsider, the economic suppression of Ireland, the subjection of women, and, most importantly, the means of rebellion against all of these. Vampires and whores, predators and victims—how can we tell the dancer from the dance?

In Byzantium, Jordan works wonders setting his outsiders apart from the environment they only half inhabit, while out-of-focus light sources dance in the background like leukocytes under a microscope. And when he isn’t creating conflicting layers with long lenses, he is choreographing motion on two or three planes of deep-focus activity. Background action cuts the vectors of foreground characters, which are themselves cut by the moving camera, keeping the viewing eye constantly alive, the viewing mind constantly questioning which movements are real and which are only suggested. One amazing shot, a lateral track of a beach conversation between two characters with a line of fishing boats moored behind them moves along the line of boats, gradually seeming to forget the characters altogether (and enabling us to do so as well), arriving at one boat boldly named “Our Lady,” then suddenly reverses its movement, as if the camera, Jordan’s eye, our eye, has gone too far, done too much, forgotten what it is about, and returns to the characters as if little or nothing had happened. It’s a delicious detail in an endlessly delicious movie, a celebration of color and light, a matrix of Irish anger and Irish love, with a satisfying, thrilling rightness about every move, gesture, and event. And if you remember that Bram Stoker was Irish, and that a guy named Yeats wrote poems about Irish rebellion and about a place called Byzantium—well, so much the better.

Copyright © 2013 Robert C. Cumbow

Dossier ’79

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

It is appropriate that they just took “There she is, Miss America” away from Bert Parks. I too have been deprived of the opportunity to sing my same old song again. One could say rhetorically that after 1978 the movies had nowhere to go but up; but rhetoric is one thing and the art-industry’s capacity for self-degradation quite another. And ’79 did see a few films as empty, ugly, and offensively inept as any dreck of previous seasons: Bloodline, Prophecy, Nightwing, Sunburn, Love and Bullets, Ashanti, and the phenomenally successful Meatballsas drecky dreck as ever dreck was. But they didn’t taint the whole scene, didn’t seem the dominant alternative to excellence. If only one or two films suggested a radical breakthrough into new zones of artistry or film consciousness, nevertheless an astounding number of movies managed to be lively, personal, nonderivative. François Truffaut may have made an utterly superfluous Antoine Doinel compendium like Love on the Run, and Federico Fellini wasted his time on Orchestra Rehearsal, an only half-good idea for a movie done with about a third of the zest and invention we’d expect of him. But good men like Blake Edwards and Peter Bogdanovich seemed to have got better; at least they were getting more credit for the beauties and intelligence of their work than they had in years. Whatever they had must have been catching because even hacks and/or poseurs like Ted Kotcheff, Peter Yates, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, and Arthur Hiller signed their names to very agreeable movies (North Dallas Forty, Breaking Away, The Brinks Job, The Electric Horseman, and The In-Laws, respectively). Going to the movies got to seem more like a pleasant pastime again instead of a masochistic compulsion.

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Days of Purgatory (1978)

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

You know and I know, and each knows that the other knows, that 1978 was the worst year for movies since sound came in, so let’s not belabor the subject. Living through it was labor enough.

Apart from the superfluousness of such a gesture, one reason I don’t choose to mount a blistering that-was-the-year-that-wasn’t retrospective is that I was less than diligent about keeping up with the films passing through the Jet City and environs. I missed a few here-and-gone pictures I particularly wanted to see, such as Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers (which lasted less than a week and reportedly has been pulled from distribution), James Bridges’ 9/30/55 (shown as a first-run second feature in very farflung nabes), Ted Post’s Go Tell the Spartans (a short-term top feature in the same farflung nabes), Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C, and Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch. Nothing but sloth, an aversion to hype, a low sense of priority, and a careless susceptibility to predisposition—in various combinations—can account for missing longer-run items like Interiors, House Calls, Paradise Alley, FIST, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, Grease, The Wiz and Midnight Express,not to mention Lord of the Rings and Watership Down (I have never been able to get excited about feature-length animation). I intend to catch up with all of them eventually, but if anyone chooses to see my Besting and Worsting of 1978 compromised by any of these oversights, I can hardly protest. The one film I feel seriously delinquent in having missed was Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha; it was shown one time only in Dana Benelli’s ASUW Major Films Series, and I was on my way to see it until a Seattle Film Society emergency obliged the then-President to change his plans.

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