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Off the Beach: Fellini Satyricon

Fellini has been widely perceived as a moralist, ruthlessly portraying the corruption he saw around him in the social, political, and cultural flounderings of postwar Italy. But to regard him as a sometimes appreciative but more often critical observer of his world is to see only half the puzzle—the less interesting half. For Fellini always knew that he was part of the world he beheld, and what haunted him most was the impossibility of objectivity. The quasi-documentary approach of neorealist film-making became meaningful—and honest—only in combination with the self-examination more commonly associated with expressionism.

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Fellini Satyricon: Bodies as landscape

La dolce vita and 8½, still for most viewers the two jewels in Fellini’s crown, present unapologetic self-portraits of the director at two stages of his creative life: the passionate would-be novelist, underemployed as a gossip reporter, unable to avoid becoming what he beheld; and the celebrated film director struggling to reconcile his creative visions with the expectations of an increasingly demanding public and to find common ground between his personal life and his public image. They also reflect a pivotal two-step process by which Fellini moves away from the linear neorealism of his earlier work and toward the surreal episodic narrative form that to one degree or another informs all of his later work.

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William Wellman’s Forbidden Hollywood – DVDs for the Week

The studios are finally listening to me! Okay, maybe not, but fifteen months ago I did publish my wish list of Dream DVD Special Editions and Box Sets on GreenCine. Some of those wishes have since come true: Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (with all three cuts of the film), The Films of Budd Boetticher (featuring all five Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films made for Columbia), A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell) and Murnau, Borzage and Fox (a far more ambitious project than even I wished for). And one of my “Honorable Mentions” was a “Forbidden Hollywood” collection dedicated to the pre-code films of William Wellman, notably Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Yes, I know that these have been in works, in one form or another, since before I even started the piece, but there is still a little satisfaction in seeing my dreams come true, and this week another dream comes to life: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, subtitled “Six classic, provocative films directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.”

forbiddenhollywood3I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).

But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.
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“The Robe” introduced a new Scope

"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray
"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray

Whatever you think of the biblical blockbuster, The Robe, there’s no question that its phenomenal popularity marked a turning point in movie history.

Twentieth Century-Fox, which previously treated it rather shabbily on DVD, tape and laser disc, is finally recognizing its significance with a Blu-ray Special Edition that’s loaded with extra features. Among them: a featurette about the history of CinemaScope, a discussion of the script’s political implications, and an enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorsese, who vividly remembers the impact it had at the time.

Just weeks after The Robe’s much-ballyhooed debut as the first Scope release in the fall of 1953, the movie was challenging Gone With the Wind by setting new box-office records, and theater managers were widening their screens and beefing up their sound systems.

Before the year was over, Scope had won the battle over screen shape and size, and even movies designed to be “square,” like Shane, were stretched and distorted to suggest a panoramic effect. A few major-studio films, including the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, were partially reshot to take advantage of the new process.

The Robe led the way in replacing small screens and transforming monophonic sound systems. Although some critics suggested that wide screens were suitable only for photographing snakes and funerals, and Charlie Chaplin and Frank Tashlin made fun of Scope in their late-1950s films, the system eventually had an artistic impact. Hollywood’s famous 1950s spectacles and musicals were affected, and so were such meticulously designed wide-screen classics as La Dolce Vita, The Innocents, Jules and Jim and most of Robert Altman’s movies.

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Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

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The Night of the Hunter

[originally published on Robert Horton’s blog The Crop Duster on March 1, 2009]

“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.

Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter

Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.

Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.

Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.

You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.

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This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t image anyone getting closer.

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

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New Yorker Essentials – DVDs for the Week

As the shock of New Yorker’s announcement sinks in, so does the complicated legacy of New Yorker. In conversations with friends and colleagues who programmed college campus films series and commercial repertory calendars (back when such things were a vital part of a metropolitan city cinema landscape), we all recalled the high prices of New Yorker film rentals and the deplorable condition of much of its print library. In my days as a video store manager, I sweated the premium prices of New Yorker videotapes, titles that would be lucky to break even, and they dragged their feet when it came to price reductions (many of which I wound up reviewing for Amazon.com during the early days of its home video launch). As a viewer I was often frustrated by the image interference caused by the heavy Macrovision copy protection. When it came to DVD, the quality was always fine, but never showed the crispness of Criterion restorations and digital mastering.

New Yorker Films' first release
New Yorker Films’ first release

Yet for all those gripes, New Yorker was essential to the richness of cinema culture in my time. It kept alive the canons of Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Godard, Herzog, but in addition to its commitment to the European canon, it brought to light filmmakers from neglected corners of the cinematic culture, in particular Africa, South America and Iran. Would the films of Ousmane Sembene be accessible to American audiences if not for New Yorker? Would the films of South America’s Cinema Novo movement have been “discovered” with them?

Just contrast New Yorker with Miramax. Back in their Miramax days, the Weinstein Bros. showed cagey instincts when it came to sifting through imports for that sexy title that they could sell with their own inimitable mix of art cinema ballyhoo and cultural cache. They outbid everyone else to secure those films in which they saw potential and sunk money into striking good prints with strong, readable subtitles, and into promoting their films. And at times they brought in the scissors to trim down their imports. They combined the arrogance of an old-time studio boss with the promotional savvy of a William Castle or a Kroger Babb, only with a touch of class.

New Yorker never had those promotional instincts and certainly never had the capital to compete with Miramax and the boutique divisions of the major studios that flowered in the wake of Miramax’s success. But then it never occurred to Dan Talbot and the New Yorker crew to edit down the films they imported. Miramax made foreign filmgoing special. New Yorker was about special foreign films and filmmakers. It was, in many ways, up to the audiences to find them.

Most of those studio indie/art film divisions have since been shut down or absorbed back into their parent companies, and the Weinsteins are still looking for a signature acquisition to re-establish themselves outside of Miramax (which is doing just fine in its more modest, post-Weinstein incarnation). On the home video side, we’ve seen  specialty labels like Tartan Films and NoShame close up and others struggle to continue.

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DVD for the Week – Remembering New Yorker Films 1965-2009

I got the news from Girish Shambu (via Facebook), who directed me to a report on IndieWire by Eugene Hernandez, who confirmed it: New Yorker Films is closing its doors. The devastating news is on the New Yorker homepage.

new_yorker_films_topAnyone who was active in film culture in the days before the video business gave us access to many (though by no means all) of the classics of world cinema will remember New Yorker Films. When repertory theaters and college film programs were our only access to foreign films new and old, New Yorker  distributed new films from great directors around the globe and built a small but essential library that kept in circulation the works of such auteurs as Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Werner Herzog, Louis Malle, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ousmane Sembene… the list goes on and on. The prints weren’t cheap, but they kept the works and the artists alive.

When home video changed the landscape of film distribution and pretty much ended the culture of repertory cinema, New Yorker’s print library found fewer venues for theatrical showings. The rights for home video distribution were not in those original contracts and foreign studios shopped many of those rights around to other video distributors and, later, DVD labels. I hadn’t heard the rumblings at New Yorker, but I saw the signs. DVDs were announced, then delayed, then delayed again. The number of titles on their schedule dwindled. And, to be honest, New Yorker was still looking to define itself on DVD. They were late to mastering widescreen films in anamorphic widescreen. The quality of DVD masters, while fine, often showed the telltale signs of PAL-to-NTSC conversion, rather than a fresh digital master for American DVD. Supplements were slim, if there were any. Criterion had established itself as the gold standard for classics on DVD. New Yorker struggled to catch up, but you could see the efforts in recent releases.

But I imagine that the real culprit in New Yorker’s demise is the changing face of film distribution: foreign films are finding a harder time finding screens, local coverage of non-mainstream films is dwindling, and even the alternative weeklies in major cities can’t be counted upon to cover these films that live and die by local support.

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What Ever Happened to Arch Oboler? (Part Two – 3D)

[Part One of Matthew Rovner’s overview of Arch Oboler’s films career ran on Parallax View here. Part Two covers Oboler’s efforts as a pioneer in 3D cinema.]

SYMPATHY FOR BWANA DEVIL

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A lion in your lap: Bwana Devil

While in Kenya, Oboler became fascinated with The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), written by adventurer and Zionist J.H. Patterson. The story was based on a real incident in which two lions hunted and killed, in tandem, builders of the Uganda Railway in Tsavo, Kenya. Hooked on this story, Oboler determined to make a film version called The Lions of Gulu. He explained this idea to his cameraman in Africa, William D. Snyder. Synder had worked in Hollywood on the 3D MGM shorts called Audioscopiks. He suggested to Oboler that he make The Lions of Gulu entirely in 3D. Oboler was intrigued and finally seized the opportunity when The Twonky‘s cinematographer Joe Biroc, introduced him to Friend Baker who had invented an improved system for 3D filmmaking. He invented the process for eminent ophthalmologist Dr. Julian Gunzburg, who was experimenting with polarized images to cure “lazy eye.” Dr. Gunzburg’s brother, Milton was a Hollywood screenwriter and the brothers owned the pending patent rights to Baker’s invention. Biroc shot the test footage for this 3D system. At the time, the major film studios were suffering major financial losses because audiences were migrating to television. Nonetheless, the studios turned down Baker and the Gunzburgs’ 3D system because executives had no faith that 3D would lure audiences back to the movies. After these rejections, the Gunzburgs approached Oboler with their demonstration reel and he liked what he saw: “Natural Vision.” Later in life, Oboler and his producer, Sidney Pink, accounted differently for how the deal was struck, but the upshot is that Oboler’s production company was supposed to have exclusive rights to “Natural Vision” for the first and second films, while the Gunzburgs’ Natural Vision company would tie up the market for the Polaroid glasses that were needed to view the 3D. The sheer novelty of the process attracted some name acting talent.

Newly freed from his contract with Universal, Robert Stack was enthusiastic about starring in Hollywood’s first color 3D feature film. Nigel Bruce, who suffered from alcoholism, begged to be in the film and did the entire picture sober. Sadly, it was his last film. Bwana Devil was shot at the Paramount ranch standing in for Kenya, although the rear projection shots were from footage taken by Snyder in Africa. Standing in as Masai warriors were extras from Watts, Los Angeles. For the soundtrack, Oboler used a combination of traditional music from the Acholi of Northern Uganda and a score by his Strange Holiday composer Gordon Jenkins. Robert Stack’s mother provided much of the financing for the film, but Pink ran into problems with another major financer who had a questionable reputation. This problem created a major rift in Oboler and Pink’s relationship, which deteriorated from there. When I spoke with Pink in 2000, he referred to Oboler as “that miserable bastard.” However, Pink’s contribution to promoting the film was substantial. It was Pink who came up with Bwana Devil’s legendary tag-line: “A Lion In Your Lap, a Lover In Your Arms.” Audiences flocked to the film to experience 3D, which, when projected properly, was impressive. They were undeterred by the critics, who savaged almost every aspect of Oboler’s movie, from the script to its low budget shortcomings to Biroc’s cinematography.

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What Ever Happened to Arch Oboler? (Part One)

[Arch Oboler’s Five makes its home video debut on Tuesday, February 3. To mark the occasion, Oboler expert Matthew Rovner has contributed a brief history his film career. Part One covers his earliest films. ]

Arch Oboler came to Hollywood out of the radio tube, but he never showed the visual flair of Orson Welles. His name still reverberates from the Lights Out radio series I heard in my childhood. Hence, he is included if only as a reminder of the vanished mystique of radio in the motion picture industry.
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Arch Oboler creates Lights Out
Arch Oboler creates “Lights Out”

As a filmmaker he was certainly no Orson Welles, but Oboler deserves better than oblivion.In the 1940s, Oboler was one of the highest paid writers in the world and the most successful radio playwright in America. Radio, prior to the advent of television, was the most powerful and influential mass communication medium on the planet. Oboler stood shoulder to shoulder with the two other giants of American radio, Norman Corwin and Orson Welles. Welles’s biographer, Simon Callow, has even noted that “…Welles’s radio work possessed none of the riddling originality of Arch Oboler.” Oboler was to radio what Rod Serling became to television; Serling’s ironic and socially conscious “weird tales” for The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery were influenced by Oboler’s plays for the radio program Lights Out. As Andrew Sarris suggests, Lights Out is the radio series for which Oboler is best remembered.

But Oboler was more than a mere fright master; he was also a writer with a political conscience and a relentless desire to elevate radio writing to an art form. His books of published radio plays have introductions from eminent writers such as Irving Stone and Thomas Mann. Oboler was NBC’s “boy genius” and their answer to rival network CBS’s formidable roster of talented writers including Corwin, Welles, and Pulitzer prize winner Archibald MacLeish. NBC, America’s most powerful network gave Oboler his very own radio series with complete creative control and his name in the title: Arch Oboler’s Plays. It was an almost unheard of honor. On radio, Oboler was a tireless and original innovator.He wrote most of his plays from the first person perspective, concentrating on the thoughts, memories and imaginings of his protagonists.Particularly memorable is his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun with James Cagney as Joe Bonham, a World War I casualty without eyes, ears, tongue, or limbs. Oboler was also a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when the spoken word could better create an image in the mind of his listeners. Nonetheless, the sound effects that he did use are remembered for their audaciousness and creativity such as the eerie vibration of bed springs, which Joe Bonham learns to recognize as the movement of people entering and exiting his hospital room.

The Twonky
The Twonky

What Oboler brought to film from radio was an innovative use of multi-layered sound tracks and his trademark stream-of-consciousness technique.He also brought to film his pioneering and independent spirit, which influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. That same maverick passion nearly bankrupted him when he became obsessed with creating the perfect 3D film system. Oboler made only nine feature films, but each of them is a cult classic due to both his eccentric vision and even his limitations as a filmmaker: Bewitched (1945), Strange Holiday (1945), The Arnelo Affair (1947), Five (1951), Bwana Devil (1952), The Twonky (1953), 1+1 (1961), The Bubble (1966), and Domo Arigato (1972). At times, he has been compared most unfairly to Ed Wood Jr.; however, in style and theme””if not artistic consistency””he was a mix of Sam Fuller, Stanley Kramer, and Val Lewton. Oboler’s life and work are full of the unexpected, including this surprise: even before he was making radio he was making movies.

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Observations, Reflections, and Ruminations from 2008

No, this is not a top ten of the year, nor even a fair bid at a summation of the year in movies. It’s just a grab-bag of passing thoughts teased into being by some of the films I saw this past year, and an effort to say a few things that no one else is likely to.

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Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and the Outback

Australia: Instant guilty pleasure. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t anyone like Nicole Kidman around in early 20th century Australia, and that no person of the time, white or black, really wanted a child of the Stolen Generation the way Lady Sarah Ashley and wily old King George both wanted Nullah. I’m also pretty sure that doesn’t matter a bit to Baz Luhrmann … or to me as a viewer of his film. Throughout its considerable running time, a voice like that of the servants of imperial Roman heroes at triumph whispers in my ear that this is not a masterpiece, not perhaps even an especially good movie. Yet how can I resist its joyous celebration of the movies, how they transform and redeem us, how they enable us to contrapose what should have been to what was? Drawing from screwball comedy, epic western, epic war movie, from acknowledged classics (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Red River) and forgotten oddities (Donovan’s Reef, The Devil at Four o’Clock), Luhrmann gives us an infectious re-invention of his native land made in the image of what is most important to him, the movies. –And what a joy to see again, together, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and David Gulpilil—giants of the now-distant golden age of Australian film.

Changeling and Gran Torino: This year’s Eastwood two-fer underscored once again what is strongest and weakest about the vision of the man who is perhaps the last quintessentially American film maker. On the good side: a strong sense of story and story-telling, of a thoroughly visual narrative style, and of the power of an honestly observed character (Oscar nominations be damned, no performance of 2008 arrested my admiration more than that of Michael Kelly as Changeling’s Detective Ybarra). On the down side: a stubborn simple-mindedness when it comes to corruption and evil. The flat portrayals of the gang members of Gran Torino and the LAPD top brass and their sanitarium cronies in Changeling reduce what might have been to something much less. On the other hand, if Eastwood is indeed the last American film maker who sees with truly American eyes, there may be a lesson for us all in his bull-headed conviction that good guys are complex personalities with a compelling dark side, but bad guys are just plain bad—and stupid and expendable into the bargain. Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name still battle for possession of Eastwood’s soul, and every film he makes is to some degree a new skirmish in his continuing war against the staying-power of his own screen image.

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Douglas Sirk: An Introduction

[Criterion releases Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession this week. In celebration, I offer this essay, which was originally published on GreenCine in 2007]

Written on the Wind
Written on the Wind

Halfway through Written on the Wind (1956), after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted by the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone, the dialogue drops out and the driving rumba takes over the soundtrack. Malone kicks up a storm sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the discretion that has wounded her upright dad, while Keith walks the staircase and out of camera, only his hand in tight close up as it grips the banister and shivers in convulsions before Keith pitches down the spiral staircase: a heart attack, appropriately enough, as his heart is finally shattered by his bad seed daughter. The camera feels almost alive as it rushes with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, the “good” kids Keith never had, as they run to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It’s a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.

Written on the Wind is the mad masterpiece of Douglas Sirk’s great glossy, giddy melodramas, the (largely Technicolor) films of the last decade of his career that made his auteur fame. He turned suburbia into a storybook-pretty but socially arid prison of conformity and high living mansions into tarnished nurseries of corrupted values and festering jealousies. Simply reading their plots might cause the uninitiated to regard his canon as some perverse auteurist joke, but under the kitschy trappings and absurd situations is an ironic (back before irony had become the cinematic norm) and at times surreal refraction of the American self image.

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Powell and Hitchcock

[This was written on May 15, 2001, for the Northwest Film Forum newsletter.]

Michael Powell worked uncredited as a set designer and title writer on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 movie Blackmail. Which is neither here nor there, but does serve to mark the accidental convergence of England‘s two most exciting directorial talents.

"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas [still from the Internet Encyclodedia of Cinematographers]
"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas

I was dreaming about movies the other night (it happens), and imagining a symposium in which key films would be set forth as teaching examples for a combination film series and class. An early Powell film came to mind, a personal favorite, one whose images and moods often claim me in idle moments. My wife (several of us were planning this series) objected that, while the film is enchanting, it really wasn’t appropriate as a specimen from which to draw lessons. I immediately recognized that she was right. Later—awake now, lying in bed—I recalled the dream and found myself musing on the idea of teaching from Powell’s films. And I realized that, apart from a course on Powell himself—or Powell–Pressburger, to ring in his august writing partner and co-creator of such irreplaceable classics as I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, Emeric Pressburger—Powell movies would be inapt choices for a course on classical film style.

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There Will Be Choice: Why Gone Baby Gone Is the Best Film of 2007

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 11/05/2008, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that make you who you are: your city, your neighborhood, your family. People here take pride in those things.
–Patrick Kenzie

Gosh, what a great year 2007 was for movies. You could wipe out the Academy’s five Best Picture nominees, replace them with five others, and still have an honorable rack of best-picture candidates. One of those second five could easily be Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone—my personal vote for best film of the year.

A well-crafted film, richly deserving of the honors it has received, No Country for Old Men nevertheless too often feels like a collection of highlights from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, sometimes about one guy, sometimes about another, never matching the novel’s more focused vision. There Will Be Blood is even more all over the map—gorgeous to look at, but without the discipline of knowing where it’s coming from, where it’s headed, and what, if anything, those two points have to do with each other. Michael Clayton bounces between rich characterization and caricature, moral complexity and empty-headed mantras about corporations. Atonement seems to be about one thing, but only for the purpose of revealing ultimately that it is about something else altogether—not romance or betrayal but the power of art to liberate, and the impossibility of such liberation. And it takes that war-epic detour in the middle, as if to say, “Hey, guys, this isn’t a chick flick! Honest!” Juno is primarily about language, but uneasily so, since its characters, who are all sharply defined and mostly well-rounded, nevertheless all speak with the same voice—the impossibly quick-witted and widely experienced voice of one clever writer. And the language of the film’s characters is an end, not a means, never satisfactorily bound to the film’s moral theme about decision-making.

Gone Baby Gone is also about decision-making; but unlike the Academy’s five nominees, it is a film that from the first to the last frame never forgets what it’s about, and remains unrelentingly faithful to its theme throughout. Director Ben Affleck shows an unerring eye and a concentration of intent that makes this film really special.

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In Praise of “Doubt” in the Certainty of Cinema

With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.

Meryl Streep has her certainty
Meryl Streep has her certainty

While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.

Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much – racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality – without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.

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