Chimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) has been difficult to see under any circumstances for at least the last three decades. It suffered from distribution issues during its original release (a woefully misguided pan by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, an old-school moralist at sea in the era of new visions, essentially sunk it American release) and has been in legal limbo thanks to competing claims of ownership for decades. Original 35mm prints had issues with image and sound mixing and timing and surviving prints were worn and degraded over time. After years of negotiating and gathering materials, the film was restored in 2015. The re-release was a revelation and the first time that many Americans had the opportunity to finally see the film that Welles had called his favorite (admittedly he had said that about more than one of his films over his career, but Chimes did hold a special place in his heart). Welles called Falstaff “the greatest creation by Shakespeare” and said of the film: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.
Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, The Underground Man, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street is Sam Fuller’s Godard movie. The title is gradually pieced together (cf. Pierrot le fou), there is a scene in a movie theater where the hero grooves on hearing John Wayne in German in Rio Bravo (cf. Boetticher’s Westbound with an Apollinaire soundtrack in À bout de souffle and Jack Palance’s orgiastic response to a cinematic bathing belle in the screening room of Le Mépris), there is a plethora of clique-y movie jokes (e.g., a one-scene appearance by Stéphane Audran as a certain Dr. Bogdanovich), and the director’s wife is featured in all her punishing ineptitude (there’s even a nearly subliminal flash of her playing a scene with Akim Tamiroff in Godard’s Alphaville). Besides these factors, none of which is exactly ignorable, the movie parodies its own narrative homeground to a fare-thee-well. After a bang-up opening in which a dead pigeon and a dead man and a wounded assassin named Charlie Umlaut all fall in Beethovenstrasse, in fist-in-the-kisser images slammed into a very jagged rhythm, Fuller gives us a shot of a pair of bare soles being wheeled down the corridor of a morgue. Looking above and beyond them (which is hard), we see Glenn Corbett and a West German cop and, of course, a morgue attendant; Corbett’s voice is droning on, in four lines piling up enough hyperchromatic exposition to occupy most films for a reel. Indeed, for a moment we can’t be sure whether Corbett is telling this to the German cop or doing a Spillane-style voiceover for our benefit.
Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.
As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way.
From one perspective, director David Lowery seems like an unlikely choice for Disney to remake their partly animated 1977 musical fantasy Pete’s Dragon. An independent filmmaker in every sense of the term, Lowery came up through short films that encompassed the phantasmagorical and the practical with a sometimes dark imagination. His signature seemed to be a sensitivity to the tactile quality of his physical world, and to the texture and quality of light in his southwestern locales. Lowery explored his philosophy of filmmaking as a handmade art in Some Analog Lines (2005), a short that lingered on the tactile dimensions of creation, and that philosophy also guided A Catalog of Anticipations (2008), which could be an American Southern Gothic take on the netherworlds of the Quay brothers—as seen through the prism of memory and the primal imagination of a young girl spinning myth from found objects in her rural Texas landscape.
Yet from another perspective, this director is an ideal choice to remake the goofy, sunny adventure of a lonely boy and a forest dragon that no one else can see (except an old man played by Robert Redford).
In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.
Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.
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.
Bridgend is a horror film, but not in the traditional sense. The horror is that the events of Bridgend, a rural county in South Wales, occurred in real life and continue to do so. Between January 2007 and February 2012, at least seventy-nine suicides were reported in this small county, most of them teenagers, most of them by hanging. They left no suicide notes and, though the media have suggested some kind of suicide pact or death cult, to this day there is no explanation.
Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde spent six years traveling back and forth from his home in Denmark to Bridgend, getting to know the people and letting them get to know him. The locals had a deep distrust of outsiders because of years of tabloid reporters exploiting their tragedy, but they opened up to Rønde. Their stories and experiences became the core of his script—though he was a documentary filmmaker by profession and practice, he chose to channel their stories into a dramatic feature—and they even allowed him to shoot the film on location in Bridgend. Many of the kids he got to know appear in small roles in the film.
“When you read that seventy-nine hung themselves in the end of the film, that’s the only official number I could use. The problem is it’s a lot higher,” he explained. “The kids tell me every time one dies and we hear about it in the news, there were two or three that were kept out of the public eye. And on top comes all the people that tried to do it but failed. Sometimes it was several a day, over months, in such a small community.”
My films tell a little bit of the history of Italy.
More than a decade before the French New Wave, a generation of Italian film critics and cinephiles challenged the high gloss and low ambitions of the Italian film industry under Mussolini with a wave of films that addressed social and political life during and after World War II, movies shot in the streets with a rough immediacy dictated as much by threadbare production resources as by stylistic choice.
Carlo Lizzani was not simply shaped by Italian neorealism. He helped create it. As a film critic and an active leftist, he wrote manifestos promoting neorealism and wrote a respected history of Italian cinema in 1952. He co-wrote and assisted on the productions of Roberto Rossellini‘s Germany Year Zero (1948), Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949), which earned him an Academy Award nomination and Alberto Lattuada‘s The Mill on the Po(1949). He made documentaries before making his feature directing debut with the resistance drama Attention! Bandits! (1951), a film he got made by organizing the workers of Genoa into a filmmaking cooperative, and he returned to documentaries at the end of his career, making films about the great Italian directors he knew and admired: Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Giuseppe De Santis. His love of cinema and his passion for politics and history came together in his 1996 feature Celluloid, which dramatizes the making of the pioneering neorealist masterpiece Rome Open City.
Between these poles, Lizzano had a thriving career making genre films—westerns, crime thrillers, war dramas—in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more than simply a matter of necessity. He loved genre pictures. They were also a superb vehicle for smuggling political commentary into popular cinema. It was a good fit for a filmmaker with an affinity for rebels and outlaws.
[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.
Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.
[Throughout the month of March, 2016, SIFF Cinema and NWFF are teaming up to present the retrospective ‘Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.” [Details here] To celebrate, we revive this piece, an extended version of an essay originally published in the Scarecrow Video “A Tribute to Wim Wenders” program in 1996.]
“A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts.” – Wim Wenders
In Wenders’ student short Alabama (2000 Light Years) we first see what will become a hallmark in feature after feature: the world as viewed through the windshield of a moving car. We’ve seen many variations of this image (through a car side window, through the window of a train or a plane) but it’s this first image that is key to Wenders’ works, which puts us in the drivers seat, so to speak.
Wenders makes films about travelers, people on the move, and he continually returns to the road film: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road, Paris Texas, and Until the End of the World. In other films, travel becomes a central element of the narrative: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The American Friend, The State of Things, Lisbon Story, and of course the journeys from heaven to earth in Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! His world is a landscape of winding country roads through fields and forests, city streets and urban cityscapes, railroad tracks and speeding trains, coffee shops, hotels, jukeboxes, photo booths and other roadside attractions. The road serves as both an escape and a way back, the route for escape from responsibility, the winding path back to self. From the self exiled wanderer to the determined traveler, the road ultimately becomes a pathway to (or the possibility of) grace.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
Keith Baxter was a struggling young Welsh actor when Orson Welles tapped him to play Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight in Ireland. Like Welles’ earlier Five Kings, this massive production brought together elements of numerous Shakespeare plays, in particular Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, to chronicle the education of a king, and like the earlier production is was commercial failure. But Welles was still determined to make his production. As Baxter related in a 1988 interview, “on the last night, coming back to England, he [Welles] said to me on the ship, ‘This is only a rehearsal for the movie, Keith, and I’ll never make it unless you play Hal in that, too.’” Welles was true to his word and Baxter, in his first major screen role, starred opposite Welles in a cast that included John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford.
Mr. Baxter, now eighty-two years old and a grand old man of British and American theater, was in New York City to introduce the American debut of the new restoration if Chimes at Midnight on Friday, January 8. Before the event, he granted a few interviews. “Ask me whatever you want to ask,” he said with a bright enthusiasm as our phone conversation began.
Sean Axmaker: You starred as Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in Ireland. You were the only member of that production (besides Welles) to appear in the film. Was there any change in the way that you played Hal and in the relationship between Hal and Welles’ Falstaff between the stage production and the film a few years later?
Keith Baxter: Well not really, you know. The thing is that Welles discovered me when I was out of work, washing dishes, so it was a wonderful opportunity to play on the stage with him. And, how can I explain? He really loved me and I really loved him. I don’t mean in any sexual sense. I mean because he’d given me a whole opportunity to play a wonderful part with a great actor instead of washing dishes and being out of work. So of course I felt a tremendous debt towards him. And he was wonderful to act with. He didn’t direct the play in Dublin, it was directed by an old friend of his who had discovered him when he was a teenager in Ireland [ed. note: Hilton Edwards]. Because when we started rehearsing Welles wasn’t there for two weeks, he was in Paris working on his film of The Trial, so we rehearsed without him and then he arrived. And of course we were all mightily… not in awe of him, well yes, in awe of him, whatever, and it was quite clear that he liked acting with me and I was a source of light.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
To call Roman Polanski’s fourth feature film a mere spoof on vampire movies is as ridiculously shallow as to call it The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Polanski’s own title, Dance of the Vampires, far better suits this ambivalently comic, profoundly troubling sortie into cinema gothic. The villain in the case is the spectacularly myopic producer Martin Ransohoff, who cut some nine minutes from the original film (including some of the best sequences, if Ivan Butler’s description of the British print is to be believed), redubbed certain of the voices (including the director’s own), and slapped that insipid title on the film for its American release. With righteous indignation, Polanski asked that his name not be associated with the film as exhibited in the United States.