Browse Category

Essays

Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, Las Hurdes, Los olvidados

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.

Un Chien andalou

One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.

Keep Reading

Buñuel scenes

By Carlos Fuentes, selected and translated by Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

In Mexico

…Buñuel is of medium height, round-shouldered, powerful (an amateur boxer, military service in Spain; he also enjoys disguising himself as Guardia Civil, but with Garcia Lorca he used to disguise himself as a nun, both of them shaved very close, very powdered, and mount the Madrid trams at their busiest hours, jostling coquettishly with the male passengers, flirting with grimaces, winking at them, collective panic). Winking? Buñuel? No. A gaze unfathomable, fixed, infinitely remote, transformed only by the big infant’s grin and robust guffaw of a perpetually youthful man. He knows how to laugh until the tears come. An ingenuous-appearing humor, a series of practical jokes and remembered gags, put into action or previsualized. Spain, Mexico, and surrealism, a triple-whammy black humor.

I completely lack a conceptual memory. For me, only visual memory exists. For Simon of the Desert I settled myself into the National Library of Paris for several months, I read everything that had been written on the life of the medieval anchorites, including Latin folios. I looked into what the stylites ate, prayed, wore, everything. Useless. Culture contributed nothing. The movie is a series of visual and verbal gags.

Keep Reading

Orson Welles Has a Daughter Named Rebecca

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.

Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while Citizen Kane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.

Keep Reading

Meet the Seattle Techie Who Pulls the Strings Behind Stephen Tobolowsky

Stephen Tobolowsky

You may know him as Sandy Ryerson on Glee or Stu Beggs on Californication or Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day—the overly ingratiating insurance salesman Bill Murray punches. Face come to mind now? Bing!

But thanks to his popular podcast and subsequent PRI radio show The Tobolowsky Files, Stephen Tobolowsky has become almost as well-known a storyteller as a busy Hollywood character actor. And there’s a Seattle connection to his unlikely success: a Belltown techie named David Chen who produces The Tobolowsky Files and has now directed a performance documentary featuring Tobolowsky at the Moore, The Primary Instinct, which will premiere at SIFF.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

How It Is

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Only Angels Have Wings is one of Hawks’s “male adventurer” films, but it is also one of his comedies—and is perhaps best understood as such. It’s comedy in the sense that it has its share of wisecracks and a hint of slapstick—but also, and more importantly, in that it gives humor a place as a value and subtly undercuts “masculine” toughness in a way that parallels the rug-pulling comedy in Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, and other more obviously comic Hawks films.

Keep Reading

Mr. Arkadin

[This is a program note written for “The Cinema of Orson Welles,” the Autumn 1971 film series of the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts, and distributed at the November 9, 1971, showing of the film.]

Mr. Arkadin is another of Welles’s European productions. The soundtrack is consequently erratic, and this, plus the fact that the storyline is so crowded with events and characters, suggests the advisability of offering a brief outline of the scenario for reference either before or after viewing:

Orson Welles as Gregori Arkadin

*Pre-title sequence. Typed words: “A certain great and powerful king said to a poet, ‘What can I give you of all that I have?’ He wisely replied, ‘Anything, sir … except your secret.'” A plane is seen sweeping over a barren landscape. The director’s voice tells us that this pilotless craft was sighted one Christmas morning, that investigation of the incident “reached into the highest circles,” and that the attendant scandal very nearly toppled a government. “This motion picture is a fictionalized reconstruction of the events leading up to the murder, and to the appearance, last Christmas morning, of the empty plane.”

*The titles. The main title is formed out of newspaper cuttings. The cast is introduced in order of appearance, each seen in a subsequent shot from the film. Various other shots are seen now, to be repeated in context later.

Keep Reading

The Trial

“[I]t’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or anything else…. The producers were heroic and got it made, and there isn’t anything I had to compromise—except no sets, and I was happy with the other solution, as it turned out, even though I was kind of in love with all the work I’d done. Still, I was happy enough to scuttle it, as I always am.”
–Orson Welles on The Trial, from This is Orson Welles

Anthony Perkins in ‘The Trial’

Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1959) is now celebrated as a masterpiece, but the version released in 1959 was not the film that Welles had intended and it was largely dismissed as a glorified B-movie. It had been for Welles one last attempt to make films inside the studio system and he brought the film in on time and on budget. Yet Universal thought that his labyrinthine nightmare of a crime movie was too dark and confusing for audiences and took the editing from his hands. Welles’ famous fifty-eight-page memo (which became the basis of a 1998 revision undertaken by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch) was politic, polite and even supportive of some of the changes made by Universal’s editor as it made the case for editing refinements. Welles played by the rules right to the end, attempting to work with the producers rather than fight them, but it became clear that Hollywood simply did not want the kinds of films that Welles made and he left for Europe. Never again did he work with the budgets or the resources of a major studio production. That was his trade-off for creative control.

The Trial (1963) was not Welles’ first project after Touch of Evil—he started shooting Don Quixote in Mexico and Spain and made a series of documentaries for Spanish TV—but it was the first film he completed after leaving Hollywood.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Orson Welles goes ‘Around the World’

‘Around the World with Orson Welles’

When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.

It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.

Continue reading at Keyframe

The Magnificent Ambersons

[Originally published on The Crop Duster]

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

Keep Reading

Aftereffects: Joshua Oppenheimer’s Shorts

‘The Globalisation Tapes’

“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.”
—Joshua Oppenheimer, interviewed by Jessica Kiang at Indiewire

American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is a 1997 Marshall Scholar, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award (the same year that Alison Bechdel was so honored), and director of Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2012). From his earliest films, he’s experimented with new forms with which to explore big themes and historical forces, and he’s explored issues of representation and “truth” inherent in the form in articles and books on the subject of non-fiction and documentary.

“In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present,” he explained at the 2015 Based on a True Story documentary conference. “No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.” It’s the quantum physics of filmmaking: the act of observing changes the behavior of the observed. His solution is to incorporate the tools and the practice of filmmaking into the structure of the film.

Continue reading at Keyframe

A Neglected Western: ‘Colorado Territory’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Colorado Territory, a remake of the High Sierra plot, is an early masterpiece of the pessimistic Western. It retains the High Sierra story and works variations on most of that film’s characters. But some significant changes are also made and the result, on the whole, is much more impressive. While High Sierra was set at the end of Dillinger-style gangsterism, Colorado Territory is given a setting that evokes the end of the Wild West. The Bogart figure is now Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), “just a big Kansas jay,” escaping from jail and getting involved in one last train robbery. The Joan Leslie character becomes Julie Ann Winslow (Dorothy Malone), who is sexier and nastier than Velma was and who thus becomes a key to this version’s darker psychology. Velma’s father moves West for a better life and so does Julie Ann’s, but the latter’s dream paradise turns out to be a desert. The sentimentally symbolic dog of High Sierra is absent here, while the geographical symbolism is developed much more fully. Colorado (Virginia Mayo) is a disillusioned refugee of “the dancehall,” like her High Sierra counterpart (Ida Lupino), but here she is much more than a highly emotional spectator. High Sierra‘s cynical reporter (Jerome Cowan) is understandably missing here, but it’s intriguing to think of Brother Tomas (Frank Puglia), who watches over an all but abandoned mission, as his replacement.

Keep Reading

‘He’s from back home’: Man and Myth in ‘High Sierra’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.

Keep Reading

Orson Welles: The Enigmatic Independent

Orson Welles

The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the Depression-era hope of American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over, as far as they are concerned.

Welles completed only fourteen features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic-backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane (1941), completed to Welles’ satisfaction and released in its intended form. It has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” (Sight and Sound and American Film Institute polls made it official for a time) that it’s become a dry truism. Along with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation), the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation and plain old theatrical flourish. It has a cinematic brio and love of expressive possibilities that you rarely see from directors coming to the movies from the stage, but it also is a terrific piece of storytelling. Welles brought an understanding of power of sound design from the radio and applied a sophisticated, layered soundtrack and a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann for the score. Stunningly designed to appear bigger and more lavish than its budget would support, brilliantly lit and shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.

Continue reading at Keyframe

“That’s the kind of hairpin I am”: ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Strawberry Blonde’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

In Gentleman Jim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Me and My Gal and The Bowery. Seen alongside The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.

Keep Reading

Boys at Work: ‘They Drive by Night’ and ‘Manpower’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

They Drive by Night and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.

They Drive by Night is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel Long Haul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown [1935], seems to have been the source for this section.)

Keep Reading