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Essays

People Who Need People – ‘To Have and Have Not’

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

She brought the bottle to his room and then he took the bottle to her room and now she has brought it back to his room without anyone having had a drink so far. He cocks an eye at their mutual pretext and remarks, “This is getting to be a problem.”

The line gets a laugh. And as you laugh at it, you can’t quite say why you’re laughing, but you know you’re laughing at a number of things at the same time. It’s more than two people getting set to play a love scene. It’s two people laughing at themselves for going through all this ritual to get at the scene, and it’s also two people digging the ritual and digging themselves for having set it up. It’s two canny actors, who are also people, enjoying and capitalizing on the happy fact that they are playing about the same scene they’d be playing anyway if there weren’t a camera crew standing around. It’s also Howard Hawks and his redoubtable extra-dialogue man William Faulkner and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—only recently Betty Perske, unknown fashion model—laughing at the way they’ve just said “Screw it” to the whole bothersome notion of following a scenario.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

For it must have been after the shooting of the second stage of the bottle’s progress that Bacall said—as James Agee recorded for Time and posterity—”God, I’m dumb.” Hawks asked why and she said, “Well, if I had any sense I’d go back in after that guy.” Hawks had to agree and that’s the way they went.

To Have and Have Not, then, is firstly and most durably a movie about the making of this particular movie. In his enormously suggestive book Movie Man, David Thomson has remarked that, with Hawks as with Jean Renoir, one so often has a feeling that the director and some friends of his have got together and, simply because they happen to be phenomenally talented people in the same line of work, made a movie. While there are moments implying breezy, spontaneous improvisation in virtually all Hawks pictures, no other has such an all-pervasive sense of a floating party where a couple of particular people keep bumping into the fact that there’s something lovely about each of them and something cosmically joyous about the two of them together.

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Monster in the Box: How a Childhood Love of Frankenstein Turned Me Into a Film Critic

Robert Horton hosts the Cinema Dissection of Bride of Frankenstein, a six-hour interactive tour through the movie, at SIFF Film Center on Saturday, January 24, part of a weekend-long program “It’s Alive: Frankenstein on Film.” Tickets and details here. In anticipation of the event, here is an excerpt from his upcoming book on Frankenstein, to be published next month. © and all rights reserved, 2015, Wallflower/Columbia University Press.

If a cult is anything, it has rituals and ceremonies and a schedule of worship. And here is ours: Friday nights, gathered in somebody’s basement, sleeping bags staked out on the floor. There are chocolate-bar wrappers scattered around and a half-eaten bag of Fritos waiting to be finished off. This is 1970, or possibly 1971 or 1969, and as 12-year-olds our beverage of choice is something innocuous, Kool-Aid or Coke.

It’s almost 11:30, so the parents have already looked down a final time and said their goodnights, and the lights are appropriately low. If anybody managed to smuggle in an issue of Playboy it’s been put away, because we need to concentrate on television now. There’s a plaster Madonna looming in a corner, that home icon of the Catholic family, which is apt because we are gathered here for something like a religious ceremony ourselves.

The local 11 o’clock news program on KIRO-TV, Seattle’s Channel 7, is ending. As always, the broadcast signs off with an editorial comment from station manager Lloyd E. Cooney, a bespectacled square perpetually out of step with the turbulent era (Channel 7, owned by the Mormon Church, is a conservative business). Strange, then, that every Friday night Cooney’s bland homilies are immediately replaced by a dark dungeon, a fiend in a coffin, and three hours of evil.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

 

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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Chet Baker, Choppy Waters: ‘Let’s Get Lost’

Chet Baker

1987, Santa Monica. Chet Baker is weathered and worn. Filmed in black and white in the back of a convertible at night, framed by a pair of lovely young models, with street lights and headlights catching his features in a slash or a flash, his once smooth cheeks are leathery with age beyond his years and his face is sinking in to his skull as if his youth was eaten away from within.

1953, Los Angeles. The contact sheets of William Claxton’s photos from a recording session picks Chet Baker out of the ensemble. Holding his trumpet with an easy nonchalance, hanging with a laid-back presence of knowing he belongs, with eyes as soulful as James Dean and hair like Elvis Presley and cheekbones that look carved by Michelangelo, Baker is the young Adonis of cool jazz.

“He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful,” remarks a former lover, one of many tossed overboard to the choppy waters of his life. In the lens of Bruce Weber’s documentary, however, he’s still beautiful, a survivor wearing the scars of a turbulent life to a fashion shoot, the stark black and white picking out every scuff and wrinkle like it was earned. What we first see as a “seamy looking drugstore cowboy-cum-derelict,” in the words of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, takes on a ravaged grace through the course of Let’s Get Lost. In part that’s due to the hushed spell of his singing voice on ballads from the American songbook but mostly it’s because of Weber’s gaze.

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Presenting Thanhouser, the Greatest American Independent Studio of the 1910s

The title to Ned Thanhouser‘s documentary, The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema, isn’t mere hyperbole.

Veteran stage actor and theater manager Edwin Thanhouser (the director’s grandfather) made his move from live theater to making movies for the growing market of cinema in 1909. By 1918, as the industry grew beyond Thanhouser’s ability to keep pace, he closed it down. In those nine years of the studio’s existence, a period in which it produced over 1,000 shorts, features and serials, the industry changed dramatically. The stranglehold of Patents Trust over the fledgling industry was broken, short films gave way to features, the center of filmmaking relocated from New York to California, Hollywood was born, the grammar of narrative filmmaking evolved from tableaux scenes and simple continuity editing to complex patterns of shots to tell complicated stories, and the reign of the studio brand gave way to the birth of movie stars.

‘The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema’

According to the film, which is guided by historical research of Q. David Bowers, Thanhouser accounted for twenty-five percent of the independent films made in the United States at the peak of its success. The Thanhouser brand was a recognized mark of quality to audiences and distributors alike and two Thanhouser shorts, The Cry of the Children (1912), which addressed child labor in American factories, and The Evidence of the Film (1913), one of a number of Thanhouser films that incorporates the filmmaking process itself in the storytelling, were selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Yet only a few years later, the once-vibrant Thanhouser was in danger of becoming old-fashioned and behind the times. The story of Thanhouser is in the story of the rapid transformation of American movies in the most creatively and commercially dramatic era of American cinema.

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Ten Silent Movies to Make You a Silent Movie Fan

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd.

You say that you’re really into old movies and you can’t get enough of the classics but you just haven’t found a way to love silent cinema? You say that all your friends are doing the silents and you feel left out? You say that you too want to be part of the early cinema crowd but just haven’t found your way to loving the movies before sound?

‘The New Gentlemen’

Even among many classic cinema buff, silent movies can appear alien and unfriendly, a duty more than a treat. And it shouldn’t be that way at all. In their day, silent films were a universal entertainment, a truly popular art that transcended language and culture.

There are those who think of silent films as primitive and naïve. Some were, to be sure, but movies grew up quickly in those early years. Those primitive experiments and one-shot gags matured into feature films in under two decades, and the knockabout slapstick comedies of the Keystone Kops gave way to the comic grace of Charlie Chaplin and the invention of Buster Keaton just a few years.

And then there’s those scratchy, poorly-preserved prints that were often presented at wrong projection speeds that made everything look sped up and absurd. It’s hard to appreciate let alone recognize the scope and technical wonder of the silent extravaganzas under such conditions.

Thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, a new spirit of cooperation between international film archives, and new digital tools, those days are fast disappearing. Silent cinema is getting a makeover and audiences are finally getting a chance to see the glamor and splendor that original audiences saw when they went out to the flickers.

There is a universe of films, genres, moods, sensibilities and styles to be discovered in the thirty-plus years of cinema before the introduction of sound changed the way films were made and experienced. This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest or the most important silent films (though there are some of both sprinkled through), but rather a selection of the most entertaining and engaging films of the era. Consider it a place to start your appreciation of the glory and grandeur that was the cinema before sound.

From the recently restored version of ‘A Trip to the Moon’

A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
You want to get an idea of how lavish and creative the so-called primitives could be? Magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès was a pioneering special effects artist and a fantasist with an unbound imagination, but more than anything else he was a showman and A Trip to the Moon is his most ambitious spectacle. Thanks to the painstaking restoration of the sole surviving hand-painted print of the film by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, we can now see what enthralled audiences at the turn of the 20th century: a picture-book fantasy brought to life as a work of pure, playful imagination with crazy special effects and delirious color. Accompany this with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and you might just come away with a new appreciation for the early years of filmmaking. And if this inspires more interest in the pre-feature era of filmmaking, try the fantasies of Ferdinand Zecca and the work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the most versatile filmmaker of her era.

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That’s not Art, that’s Smut!

Sex sells, as the saying goes, and movie producers, distributors and exhibitors have known this since pictures began to move.

In That’s Sexploitation, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter and exploitation legend David Friedman celebrate the freewheeling culture of sexploitation, the sensationalistic underground of independent filmmakers and studios who cashed in on promises of carnal thrills and forbidden spectacle, specifically naked flesh (mostly female). These are the films that sprung up between the cracks of the production code and studio restrictions and, as the moniker suggests, they aimed straight for the lurid and the tawdry.

But not all films that sold themselves with the promise of erotic thrills and taboo-busting presentations of sexuality were a matter of pure exploitation. American movies started taking on adults themes once again in the fifties while films from the more permissive Europe blurred the lines between art and erotica as they explored sexuality with both a maturity and a more graphic explicitness. In other words, people got naked and shared bed right on the screen. “That’s not smut, that’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.

Here are ten films from the heady days of the sexual revolution to the present that smudge the line between art and exploitation. Sex may be the subject, the subtext, or the motivation, but promise of steamy spectacle and erotic delights was used attract patrons that normally might not otherwise attend such fare and give them the cinematic equivalent to the time-honored justification for purchasing Playboy magazine: “I get it for the articles.”

‘Contempt’

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Here are two examples of marketing skin to attract audiences to challenging films from European intellectual filmmakers. Contempt (1963) is an unlikely meeting between nouvelle vague legend Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of star Brigitte Bardot. Wouldn’t you know he actually makes them work as a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise? Blow-Up (1966), the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, is an existential murder mystery starring David Hemmings as a jaded fashion photographer who may have taken a picture of murder and Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman of his photograph. Set in swinging London, full of mod fashions, free love, a score by Herbie Hancock and an appearance by the Yardbirds, it’s a timepiece by way of Antonioni’s brand of contemporary alienation and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first mainstream movie to show female pubic hair (however fleetingly) and that was a bigger selling point for a lot of the patrons.

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John Ford Reprints the Legend

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

John Ford was probably more conscious of the meaning of history than any other American director; in a sense, the evolution of his historical vision is the measure of his growth as an artist. This evident fact is often commented on but, surprisingly, almost invariably in only the most general terms. A natural, useful way of defining this evolution more precisely is to compare closely related films Ford made at different stages of his career. An ideal subject for such a study, a pair of films sharing a common setting, literary source and group of recurring characters, is Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright. So closely, in fact, are the two related that it has become popular to describe the second film as a “remake” of the first. While such terminology is not exactly accurate, it does suggest that a comparative study of the two films should make it possible to analyze the evolution of Ford’s historical perspective in precise, concrete terms.

One way to measure the extent of this evolution is to compare the respective endings of the two films. Each conclusion revolves around a parade, but their tones are as different as their times, as day and night. Judge Priest ends with a sunlit parade; the final shot is of Confederate war veterans marching forward past both sides of the camera. In fact the parade literally surrounds the camera, as if to engulf the audience in the celebration taking place on screen (and the shot itself makes the ending uniquely processional in the work of a director whose final images are almost invariably recessive). In addition, the entire parade sequence is organic; everyone connected with it could be encompassed by a single longshot. Even the purely personal moments (such as a final feat of tobacco-juice-spitting marksmanship) are visually presented within their larger context, shown on a screen teeming with people.

‘The Sun Shines Bright’

The final image of The Sun Shines Bright is of Jeff Poindexter (Stepin’ Fetchit) sitting alone on a porch in the evening, lazily playing his harmonica. The music is audible, but otherwise there is scarcely a sign of life on the screen; the shot could almost be a still photograph. The final image of a solitary figure suggests an individual isolation consistent with the visual fragmentation of the entire final sequence. Each character or group, all the (surviving) members of cast and community who have been important in the film, are given recognition time here (as in Judge Priest and countless other Ford films), but in this case the reintroduction is accomplished without any unifying group shots; we see each pan of the community but never the entire social organism. For example, while the title character in Judge Priest last appears on the screen as one (not particularly important) part of the veterans’ parade, in The Sun Shines Bright he is last shown walking away from the camera into his house alone. As he passes through a doorway, a room, and another doorway beyond the realm of natural lighting, we are watching an individual receding into legend rather than a social group advancing into a dynamic future.

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Orson Welles: The Enigmatic Independent

[Expanded from a piece originally published on Greencine in 2003]

“And now I’m going to tell you a story about a scorpion. A scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a frog to carry him. ‘No,’ said the frog. ‘No, thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me, and the sting of a scorpion means death.’ ‘Now, where,’ asked the scorpion, ‘is the logic of that?’ – for scorpions always try to be logical – ‘If I sting you, you will die—I will drown.’ The frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back but just in the middle of the river he felt a terrible pain and realized that after all the scorpion had stung him. ‘Logic!’ cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. ‘There is no logic in this.’ ‘I know,’ said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it – it’s my character.’ Let’s drink to character.” – Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin

Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin

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 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.

Welles finished only 14 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 and released in its intended form. It’s has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” that’s it’s become a dry truism. With the AFI imprimatur stamped like some official seal, its reputation is in serious danger of becoming the least seen masterpiece around, and 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. Years ahead of its time in its layered use of sound and score (a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann), stunningly designed, and brilliantly 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.

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The Dialectics of Humor: Russian Silent Comedy

Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.

‘Chess Fever’

Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.

Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.

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‘Horrors of the Black Museum’: Herman Cohen’s Lurid Horror with a British Accent

Hammer wasn’t the only studio in Britain mining the vein of horror films that made them such attractive imports for American theaters. Before Amicus and Trigon arose in the 1960s, American producer Herman Cohen made a deal with British studio Anglo-Amalgamated to produce a pair of lurid horrors with British accents. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), starring Michael Gough as a crime reporter who takes too much delight in the most grotesque murders, is the first of them, arriving in theaters after Hammer had brought new life to old horror icons with full, blood-dripping color, lurid Gothic style, bodice-ripping sexuality, and villains who revel in their power.

‘Horrors of the Black Museum’

Back in America, Herman Cohen took a different approach to reviving the old monsters for a new generation, aiming his film at the teenage audience by writing them directly into such low budget, high concept exploitation films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957), both of which became big hits for American International Pictures. Fresh off those successes, he headed for England and took a cue from Hammer, mixing continental class with grisly material and delivering production value (widescreen and brutally vivid color) and classy talent on a budget to AIP. Anglo-Amalgamated was not previously a horror studio—the biggest success for the British B-movie studio came from Carry On Sergent (1958), which spawned the lucrative Carry On series—but as the British distributor of AIP pictures it had successfully released its share of American horror films. Horrors of the Black Museum was their first homegrown horror.

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A Dalmatian Called Nixon

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The Doberman Gang was playing all over Mexico City when I was there last June—including the front-page headlines. Passing up Byron Chudnow’s three-year-old dog biscuit (retitled El Gran Asalto de los Doberman) was easy, but I did find myself drawn guiltily, morning after morning, into the details of a real-life Doberman gang whose hefty dark chieftain went by the name of “La Jitomata” (“The Tomato”).

Her gang, according to the papers, had racked up more than two years of robberies, assaults, stabbings and homicides using a Doberman called “Samson,” a Dalmatian called “Nixon,” two bulldogs (“La Troya,” “El Goliat”), and assorted other attack dogs to terrorize victims. The gang’s depredations ranged from the capital to Puebla and Acapulco. Now the police, with much selfcongratulation, had rounded up the malefactors; and each day’s newspaper brought new revelations regarding the size of the gang and the Dickensian nature of its internal affairs. “Le Jitomara,” it seemed, was given to recruiting extremely young boys, orphans, seducing them, legally adopting them, and sending them out into a life of crime. Hence, I suppose, the gang’s own sobriquet: “La Banda del Pañal” (“The Diaper Gang”).

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‘Destroy All Monsters’: Rumble in the Jungle with Godzilla and Friends

The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.

‘Destroy All Monsters’

The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.

Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm.

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Essay: ‘The General’

This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014

‘The General’

No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.

The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.

Continue reading at San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Why ‘Goldfinger’ at 50 remains the definitive James Bond movie

Goldfinger was the third Bond feature but the first Bond blockbuster, an instant smash hit that turned the series into a phenomenon. Fifty years after its Sept. 17, 1964 London premiere, which was overrun by fans fighting to get into the theater, it remains the definitive big-screen incarnation of the world’s most famous secret agent.

IMAGE: Goldfinger
Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton in 1964’s ‘Goldfinger.’

“Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.”

The first two Bond films — Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were both unabashedly sexy and brutishly sexist, cartoons of glib machismo with martini wit and international flair. Sean Connery brought his Bondness to life with a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness.

Today you can see them as time capsules of Mad Men fantasies of masculinity with comic-book action. Goldfinger not only ups the ante on every level, it adds a few new elements that made the series.

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