Down-and-out actors lured to the desert for $75 a day and the promise they’d qualify for SAG cards, on a set so chaotic and unorganized they started taking the piss, playing their Arab warrior parts as growling, scimitar-waving pirates. Michael Joseph Gross describes the making ofThe Innocence of Muslims.
An annual highlight of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog (and that’s saying something for such a consistently rewarding site) is their Best-of lists looking back 90 years. Lest you think nearly a century is enough to set such things in amber, Thompson’s write-ups for the best films of 1922 includes commentary on some surprising omissions as well.
“The frames of Pasolini’s films combine the language of the cinema with the figural traditions of painting; his images are often equal parts Rossellini and Giotto, Mizoguchi and Bosch, Chaplin and Pontormo, Dreyer and Brueghel.” Prompted by MoMA’s retrospective, Patrick Rumble revisits the clashes—of class, religion, sexuality, even language (as Rumble reminds non-Italian speakers, thick dialects rendered his films effectively bilingual)—that comprise Pasolini’s endlessly eclectic cinema.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
You know and I know, and each knows that the other knows, that 1978 was the worst year for movies since sound came in, so let’s not belabor the subject. Living through it was labor enough.
Apart from the superfluousness of such a gesture, one reason I don’t choose to mount a blistering that-was-the-year-that-wasn’t retrospective is that I was less than diligent about keeping up with the films passing through the Jet City and environs. I missed a few here-and-gone pictures I particularly wanted to see, such as Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers (which lasted less than a week and reportedly has been pulled from distribution), James Bridges’ 9/30/55 (shown as a first-run second feature in very farflung nabes), Ted Post’s Go Tell the Spartans (a short-term top feature in the same farflung nabes), Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C, and Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch. Nothing but sloth, an aversion to hype, a low sense of priority, and a careless susceptibility to predisposition—in various combinations—can account for missing longer-run items like Interiors, House Calls, Paradise Alley, FIST, Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, Grease, The Wiz and Midnight Express,not to mention Lord of the Rings and Watership Down (I have never been able to get excited about feature-length animation). I intend to catch up with all of them eventually, but if anyone chooses to see my Besting and Worsting of 1978 compromised by any of these oversights, I can hardly protest. The one film I feel seriously delinquent in having missed was Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha; it was shown one time only in Dana Benelli’s ASUW Major Films Series, and I was on my way to see it until a Seattle Film Society emergency obliged the then-President to change his plans.
“After getting Selznick’s dense, eight-page telegram explaining why Since You Went Away’s nearly three hours could not be reduced, a colleague replied: IF I WERE YOU I WOULD MAKE NO FURTHER CUTS IN SYWA. YOU MIGHT TAKE ABOUT TEN MINUTES OUT OF YOUR TELEGRAM.” David Bordwell sifts through the most logorrheic resource available to film scholars, the David O. Selznick papers held at the University of Texas, for clues to how consciously the studio system achieved its effects.
Of course you can only search through an archive if one exists, and Hollywood studios, in their eternal chasing after the new and the profitable, have been criminally lax on that score. Film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon explains some of the obstacles members of his profession must surmount (and passes along, sub rosa, an encouraging word about the ongoing digital encroachment) in an interview with Moving Image Archive News.
Yes, “if I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit” has finally been enshrined within the National Film Registry; but then so has “there’s no crying in baseball.” The complete list here.
“The characters in Xenogenesis also visit a world called “Techno-Planet.” On this world, our main characters discover an advanced civilization that has collapsed because the people withdraw into highly realistic fantasy worlds generated by computers.” To fight off some seemingly frivolous lawsuits over Avatar, James Cameron has tracked his influences and inspirations (beginning with a sketch doodled in his 11th-grade homeroom) in a 45-page legal document, available at the Hollywood Reporter. It’s as meticulous as you’d expect, and in its endless conflations of technocrat idealism and hippie ethics, probably as close as Cameron will ever get to a Declaration of Principles.
“I was 27 and I had to make up for all the lost time in the displaced persons’ camp, so I started absorbing everything. I went to the cinema every day. I was so hungry for culture, for stimulation. It was all about grabbing the time, doing something after so many years of doing nothing.” Jonas Mekas made up for his lost time with a vengeance, as Sean O’Hagan’s interview/career profile for The Guardian makes clear. Part of the cause for the article is Mekas’s retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery, samples of which are viewable at their website.
It’s not Eric Hynes’s fault if his appreciation of Max von Sydow’s career sticks mostly to the highlights; covering 63 years and nearly as many phases (with only the slightest signs of slowing down), it’s a life’s work hard to imagine any article encompassing.
There are many sights to see in Berlin; David Bordwell covers one of any filmlover’s crucial destinations in a visit to the Babelsberg Studio, former home to Murnau, Lang, and so many, many more.
Speaking of cinematic tourism, Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay notes an unfortunate renovation has occurred at 900 Lombard, obscuring Scottie Ferguson’s apartment. Which opening, in pleasingly associative, Sans Soleil fashion, leads him to a charming anecdote from Tom Luddy about working with Chris Marker.
Tony Scott’s critical standing among the MUBI cohorts is so strong that when Gina Telaroli and Daniel Kasman called for a series of essays, each to analyze one scene from any of his films, they were forced to split the results over two weeks time. The first ten are up now, mostly (but not exclusively) rapturous celebrations of light, sound, and restless motion, with enough film stills that this might be the most colorfully expressionistic page in the history of the Internet.
“In observation, I don’t know where this is headed, but the only one of us with the coordinates for this destination in his hardware is you. Go on whatever vision quest you require.” David Bordwell breaks down the decisions and intelligence behind some scenes directed by Tim Hunter, for large screen (River’s Edge) and small (Twin Peaks, Revenge).
“As she lies dying, the woman asks the cop who has hounded but reluctantly admires her to ‘come down to my level, just once’; then as he finally succumbs and leans in for a kiss, she laughs in his face.” Imogen Smith’s appreciation of Decoy is as brisk and blunt as the Poverty Row noir itself.
“I’m an egghead. I’m not only an egghead, I’m a premeditated egghead. I set out to become an egghead and at this moment I’m in full flower of eggheadedness, and I hope to spread the spores of egghead everywhere I go.” Serge Daney in English posts one of Daney’s first published works: a defense of Advise & Consent, and Preminger, that’s just the blend of striking insights (he’s marvelous on Preminger’s “coldness”) and overreaches you’d expect from a 19-year-old genius.
“But like any good student of Gurdjieff or Stanislavsky or Freud, Ray had come to his teachers with a question that was all his own, and had come away each time with a better version of his question: how can people—two people, or multitudes—love one another, to quote King of Kings?” Bill Krohn’s magnificent close reading of Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again may not convince you of the film’s greatness, but he forever places it firmly amid the worried, questioning works the student-turned-teacher had made since the beginning.
In their latest discussion, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott take heart from a number of recent films that, success or failure, are pushing against formulaic storytelling conventions.
Most of said conventions, of course, are hawked and hammered home in books on screenplay writing, a how-to genre that has exploded in recent years. Jonathan Zimmerman spent some time under their spell, and has returned to tell the tale.
“What should be stressed is that Fassbinder’s films are slow, their tempo gentle and carefully measured. There’s no rush, even as everything falls apart. Despite the furious speed with which they were made, they are meditative works of art.” Charlie Fox’s 13-part (one for each moon) essay on Fassbinder is pitched to a mordant excess perfectly appropriate for the subject.
Greil Marcus proves to be the perfect interviewer for David Thomson—able and eager to follow his trains of thought about every movie being part one big river, the way cinema has deadened our empathy, and the hidden links between Un chien andalou and your television’s remote control—in a sparkling sitdown for the L.A. Review of Books.
“It is in control, and if you think you’re in control, then you’re being an idiot! Not a single thing you’ve done has helped, and I’m sorry, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but the camera hasn’t helped.” David Bordwell salutes how much variety can be found in even the most restrictive premise, by tracing the innovative changes on the “discovered footage” conceit throughout the four Paranormal Activity films.
“‘I’ll kill him!’ Brando told Logan when The New Yorker profile came out. ‘It’s too late,’ Logan shot back. ‘You should have killed him before you invited him to dinner.’” Douglas McCollam looks back at how Truman Capote, attempting to create something new under the sun from the disreputable genre of celebrity profiles, came up with a notorious, unprecedentedly revealing, and maybe even factual interview with Sayonara star Marlon Brando. And if you’ve never read it, here, engrossing as ever, is the New Yorker article itself. Via Longform.
“You have to set an example even in the face of stupidity. Everybody who reads comic books knows that the Kirby Silver Surfer is the only true Silver Surfer. Now am I right or wrong?” Gavin Smith looks back at the career of Denzel Washington, finding a throughline of moral integrity, unglamorous professionalism, and personal remove—almost withdrawal—pretty much without peer.
After a hiatus so long I thought the series over, Kent Jones returns with part six of his and B. Kite’s back-and-forths on Bresson, a quite lovely consideration of how one of his detractor’s recurring complaints, the way the director’s use and control of “models” damages the films’ senses of realism and community, is a fair cop but also inextricably linked to the marvel that is “the bracing nature of Bresson’s cinema, which posits existence as inherently wondrous and revelatory.” By happily timed coincidence David Bordwell has some informative thoughts to share on Bresson as well, in a video about the use of constructive editing—i.e., editing with more on its mind than seamlessly propelling the narrative—in Pickpocket.
Two more fine pushbacks to the latest round of “Death of Cinema” laments: Jim Emerson fears nostalgia for previous modes of consumption is blinding some to the opportunities (and movies) all around them; while in a brief, thought-provoking rant Peter Lenihan thinks we’ve been seduced into false dichotomies about what is and isn’t cinema because of…well, Godard, in his formulation, but he admits it’s bigger than that.
Since Halloween candy only tastes sweeter in the days after (till that horrible tipping point when it becomes inedible), some bits left over from last week’s good haul. Carson Lund takes stock of the fractured visuals and unnerving soundscape of Skolimowski’s underrated The Shout. Art of the Title interviews John Wash about his credit sequence for Halloween III, and his other efforts for John Carpenter in the early days of computer graphics. And while I’ve only sampled a little of the Val Lewton Blogathon co-hosted by the Speakeasy and Classic Movie Man blogs, Jo Gabriel’s marvelous, richly illustrated two part analysis of Curse of the Cat People is a clear standout (Part II here).
“Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light?” Meanwhile Will McKinley attended a digital screening of Whale’s two Frankenstein pictures, and feels it was a little unkind to present these pictures without just a word of friendly warning that their presentation, beamed from satellite rather than screened at the theater on hard drive, would suck beyond the telling.
“Horror simply wouldn’t exist without the possibilities for poor choices and wrong avenues. Horror leads you down a path that’s been less taken for a good reason.” ‘Tis the season. Reverse Shot kicks off its annual suggestion of horror movie viewing with Michael Koresky’s fine appreciation (and source for the quote) of Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Kevin J. Olson’s Italian Horror Blog-a-thon is underway till Halloween; so far from his contributors some jokey plot summaries, some nice appreciations (like Neil Fulwood on Lenzi’s Jonestown-exploitingEaten Alive!), and no dearth of NSFW film stills. Dennis Harvey recommends Jess Franco even while correctly cautioning his readers they’re facing a success rate of about 1 in 12. And in the overgenerous spirit typical of the holidays, the Movie Morlocks’ HorrorDads zoom past the traditional double-feature to each offer a triple-length screening selection: one for the kids, one classic, one “pitched at the horror lifers…. No punches pulled, no quarter given, fangs bared.”
“There was one of the first warnings about the generation of young directors who had been to film school, or only to the movies all their life—was it possible they knew too little to deal with human realities? If so, there was an available answer poised: delete the complexity of the realities.” In an excerpt from his latest book The Big Screen, David Thomson is still, 37 years after Jaws, trying to figure out Steven Spielberg, and whether he can transcend the liabilities of his “determined youthfulness.”
“The earliest group of underground directors—which included Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke, and emerged between the late 1980s and 2000—was dubbed the “Sixth Generation” by western film critics. It no longer exists. Most of the directors now submit to the system or have lost their creative power.” Film producer and festival programmer Zhu Rikun on the crippling obstructions and government interference that have pretty much silenced independent Chinese film, in an issue of New Statesman guest-edited by Ai Weiwei.
“A writer who’d dreamed him up wouldn’t be standing in line for any Oscar, no sir. This character breaks all the rules of drama. For a start, he has no arc. Stick with me, this is gold dust, I learned it in Hollywood.” Bill Forsyth notes the similarities between his own Local Hero and You’ve Been Trumped, Anthony Baxter’s documentary on Donald Trump’s maneuvers to open a Highlands golf course; and also the differences, beginning with the unrealistically callous, colorless villain in Baxter’s movie.
“When he heard the news that James Dean was dead, Jim Mac and his friends, thirsty in a dry county, stole across the county line to Palarm Liquor. They drove back north to Toad Suck Ferry, and on an Arkansas River sandbar, they downed spirits, engaged in a mud fight, and from the dirt, they built Academy Awards for the ghost of Jimmy Dean.” Tyrone Jaeger’s look at the inspiration behind and making of September 30, 1955 is steeped in Southern detail that eludes most articles about James “Jim Mac” Bridges. No surprise, considering Jaeger’s blog is written for the Oxford American.
While most of us greeted Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize by promising ourselves to get around to reading him someday, Richard Brody’s already ferreted out a movie connection beyond Red Sorghum, translating excerpts from a 2005 Le Monde article by the writer on the emotional devastation with which Chinese audiences greeted the North Korean film The Flower Girl (written, of course, by Kim Jong-il), spurred by the national nightmare from which they were still emerging.
The new issue of La Furia Umana spotlights three distinctive filmmakers. (Four, actually, but the journal asserts its multilingual nature by presenting all the articles on René Vautier in French; if any of the batch is must-read, let me know.) Julie Grossman does a fine job situating Ida Lupino’s originality within noir and melodrama traditions; while Claire Denis’s freewheeling, allusive method of adaptation in Beau Travail and her drawing us past comfort into the transgressions of Trouble Every Day are explicated by Adelmo Dunghe and Jessica Felrice, respectively. But the bulk of articles are devoted to William Wellman, with fine contributions from Toshi Fujiwara on The Ox-Bow Incident and J. Hoberman on The Next Voice You Hear. (As well as the thoughts of Bertrand Tavernier, again in French.) Capped by a dazzling photo-essay (with poetic interludes) celebrating the special place woman’s work holds in Wellman’s cinema, from Gina Telaroli.
“His principal direction of us was the reaped [sic] request, ‘Plus lentement!’ (‘More slowly!’), although at one point he called an extra over and, smiling, said, ‘You like to walk fast. All right, walk fast.'” Jonathan Rosenbaum recalls his two nights as an extra on Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer.
David Kalat finds Cary Grant’s debut in This Is the Night only a particularly noticeable exemplar of the new comedic sensibility and sophistication the sound film offered in comparison to its silent predecessors.
Over the next month you can get your political fix from various mushmouthed partisan wonks or from Orson Welles, whose articles for The Free World will be posted by Wellesnet till the election. Up now is his debut column, a 1943 call against the tide of fascism that ends with the kind of wry exhortation to the future they don’t just make anymore, and was a pretty rare bird back then as well: “To the generations sleeping in our loins: Be of good heart! The fight is worth it.”
“If you fell asleep with a cigarette in bed either it is put out in its own, or your house can catch fire. Doubt is like a cigarette, it either does nothing or destroys everything.” Fandor’s Miriam Bale presents five valuable lessons from Buñuel excerpted from his episode of Cinéma, de notre temps. Related: tumblr This Must Be The Place offers Buñuel’s magnificent review of Keaton’s College, with its compact argument for a less self-consciously expressive cinema and its famous assertion the movie is “as beautiful as a bathroom.”
“I was interested in Marxism and communism, but I never espoused them. I was anarchistic in my beliefs. I wanted to march against all institutions, from the family to the government.” Marco Bellochio talks about his latest provocationDormant Beauty—and the rerelease of one decades old, In the Name of the Father—with Nigel Andrews.
“It was funny seeing Noah [Baumbach]’s movie the other day, about the relationship between the women. Much more nurturing. It’s completely unsexual, while mine is filled with dark desire!” Brian De Palma’s interview with Mubi’s Daniel Kasman has all the wicked humor and cinephile asides you’d expect—as well as spoilers giving pretty much the whole game away on his latest, Passion (as well as the Corneau film it remakes), so, you know, fair warning.
“They called the film Outback. I said, ‘Outback? That makes it sound like a National Geographic documentary about Australia. What’s the matter with Wake in Fright?’ They said, ‘It sounds like a Hitchcock film.’ I said, ‘That’s bad?'” Kevin Canfield interviews Ted Kotcheff about his fourth feature, hailed at Cannes in 1971, dumped unceremoniously by its distributor, and now rediscovered and rereleased.
“He created “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sam Spade” and “The Thin Man” But he didn’t write this mystery thriller…HE LIVED IT.” Mark Fertig is approaching halfway through another poster countdown at his blog Where Danger Lives, this time tallying the 75 greatest posters from neo-noirs. As always, the graphic designer’s perceptive critiques are worth it just as much as the images. Part 1 (75-61) here and Part 2 (60-46) here.
Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On, which won the Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, opens at The Uptown this weekend and SIFF offer a special Q&A with Sachs, via Skype, after the 7:15pm show on Saturday.
Grand Illusion is dedicated their October calendar to horror and cinema of the fantastic, beginning Friday night with a return engagement of the uncut Possession from Andrzej Zulawski (I reviewed for Seattle Weekly earlier here) and two screenings of the documentary The American Scream on Saturday night in addition to runs of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Greydon Clark’s Without Warning, matinees of Bert I. Gordon’s knights and dragons The Magic Sword and a midnight screening of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Groovy! All except the documentary are on 35mm. Schedule here.
In his counterpart article to David Denby’s lamenting the death of movies (posted last week), David Thomson rejoins no, not at all. They’re only dying, and have been for decades now.
“And in the way Americans have of acting out their dreams, it came to be.” David Bordwell looks back at Cinerama, with an interesting discussion of the limitations three distorting screens forced upon filmmakers and how John Ford managed to effortlessly transcend them.
“I admire your courage, miss, er?” “Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr…?” “Bond. James Bond.” With the 007 movies now 50 years old, Vanity Fair’s David Kamp recounts the long route Ian Fleming’s novels took to get to that iconic introduction.
“It’s almost as if he has discovered a new part of himself: every good character has an evil double lurking out there, and vice-versa. After years of being corseted as Warner Brothers good lounge lizard…and unthreatening refugee roles, he can finally kick up his heels.” Mark Rappaport, finding more examples of evil twins and duplicitous doppelgangers in his career than you’d think, praises the postwar wildness of Paul Henreid.