“While cooler styles have always been with us, from Greta Garbo and Cary Grant to Steve McQueen and Charlotte Rampling, those actors communicate that they are above or outside of emotion, either aristocratically detached or winningly unflappable. In contrast, the thread of resistance to and evasion of spectacular emotionality among many in today’s new generation of stars doesn’t evoke emotional detachment or indifference but rather a tortured mistrust of expression itself—one that, in its understated way, clearly forms its own kind of emotional appeal to the audience at the same time as it dramatizes why the actor must resist making one. In fact, many of today’s most popular young actors communicate to us, in various ways, that they don’t want to perform.” Shonni Enelow traces a new trend in American acting, a withdrawal from expression, and suggests there’s no paradox that audiences happily embrace stars who embody such stand-offishness. Staying at Film Comment, whatever your method (or lack of it), some actors are just going to be better at it than others; Steven Mears writes up two less celebrated but typically fine turns—in The Gypsy Moths and I Never Sang for My Father—by one of the best, Gene Hackman. (“It’s difficult to imagine, let alone recall, an inauthentic moment from Hackman—a reading that isn’t at once perfectly judged and erupting with surprise. Paired with an antithesis of vanity, Hackman was a star both of and outside his time.”)
“A Movie is set to excerpts from Respighi’s Pines of Rome (it, too, sampled from another movie, Kenneth Anger’s 1947 debut short, Fireworks). In the first two-thirds of the film, the music is in sync with the tone and tempo of the pictures, but as the images spiral downward, the music rises in triumph. The juxtaposition heightens the horror—surely horror is at the very heart of “It’s All True”—and also sharpens Conner’s critique of our (and his) pleasure and fascination. What exactly have we all been enjoying?” Observant, thoughtful, and alive to the different ways the films, photographs, and artpieces speak to one another, Amy Taubin offers much the best walkthrough I’ve read of MoMA’s Bruce Conner exhibit. Via Mubi.
“When someone else asked about Stone’s experience of making Snowden, his answer was despondent. ‘It was really a horrible experience in every way,’ he said. Everyone laughed except for Stone.” Irina Aleksander’s account of how Oliver Stone came to make Snowden involves opportunistic Russian lawyers, ACLU lawyers idealistic to a fault, shady Hollywood executives, and a director who finally found a story to match his own paranoia. (Which has always been there, if you check out the interview below.) Via Longform.
“So I’m editing in Montreal—we’d moved the film there—and [cinematographer Roger Racine] didn’t get paid and he locked me out of the editing room. I somehow legally “seized” the film back under Canadian law. I accompanied the bailiff and police to Racine’s office to get the work print; he was livid. But we couldn’t locate the sound masters. But we smuggled the workprint out through the Michigan border in the back of a rented car we hadn’t paid for. We had to “re-dub” the whole picture, all from lip-syncing. Motherfucker! That motherfucker!” In an excerpt from The Oliver Stone Experience, the director tells Matt Zoller Seitz about his surreal struggles to film Seizure, and going from nobody to the suddenly celebrated screenwriter of Midnight Express and (back when it was still bouncing from director to director) Platoon.
Academic journals may not seem the most conducive forum for celebrations of comedy, but the new issue of cléo tackles the subject admirably, from Jovana Jankovic’s appreciation for why the compulsions played out by every character in Serial Mom makes its gleefully murderous lead so funny (“As she grins delightedly when surprising a victim in her bedroom closet with a pair of scissors, so do we. As she takes pleasure in doing whatever the hell she wants without concern for repercussions, so do we momentarily escape into a world where doing whatever the hell one wants (and looking good doing it) is a liberating and gratifyingly consequence-free option.”) to Erica Peplin’s song of praise for Jennifer Coolidge (“From which perfect cloud of pink convertibles, lip gloss and acrylic nails did you fall? You’ve been a staple in the film industry for over two decades. You have graced us with your presence in so many films that my finger gets tired scrolling through your IMDb page. In the war of the Jennifers—Lawrence, Aniston, Connelly, ad infinitum—you might be billed number two or three (or, like, six) but you’ve always held first place in my heart.”). Veronica Fitzpatrick’s interesting, and spoiler-filled, look at the destabilizing use of laughter in Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe leans a bit more on the jargon (“Laughter isn’t just decontextualized by the film’s editing; it has an increasingly arbitrary relation to affect, such that Sarah laughing in one moment doesn’t protect Charlie from being slapped across the face by her in the next.”), while Sarah Hagi drops it entirely chronicling her “hate watch” of the anti-feminist DTV religious film Christian Mingle (“At first, I wasn’t sure the first date would lead to anything, only because the two leads have zero chemistry and he’s a pair of khaki pants personified. For one date, they go out for sushi and he can barely eat it because he’s so American he can only eat chili-dogs. This is when Gwyneth starts falling hard…somehow.”).
“Reflecting the developing perception evident in most major cities circa the early 1930s, Henri and the others in Mauvaise Graine have bought into the increasingly fast-paced contemporary notion that personal transportation signifies innovative independence and a get-up-and-go social momentum. With this newfound mobility, however, as with any new technology, comes new professions and new opportunities for crime, and as seen in Mauvaise Graine, new avenues where the two intersect.” For Jeremy Carr, Wilder’s directorial debut, shot in Paris in 1934, has some hints of his future career; but even more, as Wilder himself claimed, can be found the first hints of the location staging and movie-mad self-aware protagonists that would define the New Wave.
Via Criterion, a pair of tributes to iconic (in one case at least, for all the wrong reasons) actors. Bilge Ebiri salutes Jeff Bridges for having grown into the rugged outsider that was the promise and undercurrent of his career all along. (“Bridges has finally eased into the part of the western hero. But he’s still, somehow, that same questioning, restless kid. And it’s that quality that lends these roles a kind of otherworldly complexity—that takes them out of the realm of cliché or caricature. He’s still playing a man whom the times have passed by—a survivor who recognizes that there’s no place for him in this world.”) And Sheila O’Malley revisitsSudden Fear to remind us that dismissing Joan Crawford as camp or a perfectionist obscures how much emotional truth she could pack into her carefully planned bits of physical business. (“There is a sequence that is up there with the best work Crawford ever did: Myra hides in a closet, face drenched in sweat, hand clamped over her mouth to suppress the sound of her breathing. Even more astonishing, there is only a thin band of light illuminating just a portion of her face. Crawford does more within that thin band of light than most actors can do in full spotlight.”)
While at Criterion itself, an excerpt from Arthur Hiller’s autobiography recalls in breezy, conversational tones the making of The In-Laws (“As wonderful as Peter and Alan were in the firing squad scene, they were equally wonderful in so many others, whether it was an action scene or a normal one. I shouldn’t say “normal,” because each scene was offbeat. What I liked about the picture was that it was rooted in reality. As outrageous or off-the-wall as most of the scenes were, you felt they could happen. You even felt Peter was driving backward on the freeway into oncoming traffic.”); and Imogen Sara Smith tackles that eternal question of film criticism, What Makes a Film Noir a Noir?, by arguing for the inclusion of The Red Shoes into the canon. (“Don’t get me wrong: I love these iconic elements as much as the next noir addict, but I also see the essence of noir in films that look and sound very different. This essence lies below the surface of crime and violence, in an interior world of alienation, anxiety, obsession, disillusionment. Or as crime writer David Goodis sums it up in his novel Nightfall: ‘a certain amount of confusion, some despair mixed in, and some loneliness, and some bitterness, and topped with a dash of desperation.’”)
“Utilizing characters and landscapes in such a way, Reichardt’s films resist an easily definable tone. Action is anecdotal rather than decisive, fragmentary rather than fluid: not quite gestural or symbolic, but a little too improvised or elliptical to seem fully realistic. Favoring the quotidian over the set-piece, the writer-director makes us work: at the beginning of Meek’s Cutoff, all we get in terms of exposition is Oregon, 1845—which appears on the title card—and one character etching “LOST” into a tree trunk. Dialogue is frequently off-screen: some exchanges unfold solely through reaction shots, which effectively frustrates our scene-to-scene orientation.” Michael Pattison stalks the mysteries and unspoken motivations that tie Kelly Reichardt’s films together in a “cinema of misfits and margins.”
“Nowadays this story might be taken by James Gray, casting Mark Wahlberg in the smooth-talking Bourke role and the more earnest Joaquin Phoenix as Kennedy, a quintessential 1930s brotherhood standing on each side of an urban moral divide. Except Gray would linger on the grave splendor in these men’s beings, the operatic challenge of being a cop, a husband, a man. Edward L. Cahn is no less serious but achieves a leanness which bares the emotion and the tenseness of these two lives, Kennedy’s and Bourke’s, without lingering for a single extra moment on something beyond themselves—or too deep within. When Kennedy sees himself in uniform in the mirror we don’t get a richer psychology, a flashing psychic charge, or a forceful, sculpted mythos. We see a man looking at himself in uniform.” Daniel Kasman argues the budget-dictated leanness of Radio Patrol—or rather Cahn’s ingenious employment of it—is one of its great strengths.
“When you do sports movies, it’s really a bummer to take fields of play away from people, so we hunted for new courses that people hadn’t played yet. That’s how we got Kingwood and Deerwood, in Houston, as our U.S. Open site. We had the USGA come in to lay out the course in real U.S. Open conditions. And we fell in love with Tubac Golf Resort and La Paloma, in Arizona, for Roy’s local driving range and for the qualifying-round scenes. We could’ve muscled our way into a lot of places, but you don’t want to shit on golf fans just to make a movie.” Chris Nashawaty’s oral history on the making of Tin Cup pales compared to previous such articles on Ron Shelton films, whose sports environs and themes of competition tend to inspire a fun, macho garrulousness when their makers look back. Though it is interesting to learn that out of all Shelton’s movies, the one explicitly designed to appeal to a female audience might have been the most hell-razing offset, thanks mostly to Don Johnson avoiding downtime boredom.
“One day, Marty announced that next week’s movie was Rear Window. This caused quite a stir. No one had seen Rear Window in years. Hitchcock refused to allow any public screenings. How was Marty going to pull it off? That Tuesday, the class was packed. People were sitting on the floor, in the aisles, and on the radiators when Marty entered the room wearing a cowboy hat and firing a cap gun into the air. Now that he had our attention, he had a confession to make. He had lied to us. We were not going to see Rear Window until next week. Groan. Instead we were going to see a John Wayne western in which the Duke plays a racist bastard. ‘If you leave the room, you fail the course,’” Marty said. Big groan. The Green Berets was in release, and only Richard Nixon was less popular than John Wayne. Is this what we had gone to the barricades for? Marty guarded the only exit with his cap gun. ‘This movie is called The Searchers and you will never see a better western.’” Leonard Maltin reprints a wonderful 1983 reminiscence by Allan Arkush of NYU film school in the ‘60s: from pretentious student films and porno films covertly shot on campus to the manic-talking teacher whose enthusiasm for American genre films proved so infectious; and who would later would wear these influences on his sleeve in the likes of Mean Streets, New York, New York, and Taxi Driver. Via Matt Fagerholm.
“We had only one moment of confrontation. There was a gorgeous picture of her on the front cover, and on the back I showed her with Bogart. Absolutely not, she exploded; this was her book, not his. That really pushed my buttons. ‘Listen, Bacall,’ I said, ‘people want to know about you and him, and you’ve written hundreds of pages about him. It’s my job to sell your book, he’s the major selling point, and he’s going on the back cover.’ ‘Fine,’ she said. Like most actors she responded positively to a strong directorial hand. By then, of course, we had developed a real . . . friendship? Not exactly, because I don’t think she had a talent for intimacy; she was too wary. But she was a good, loyal pal, so I suppose what we had was a real palship, and it lasted for decades.” In an excerpt from his autobiography, Robert Gottlieb recalls editing the memoirs of Lauren Bacall, Irene Selznick, and Selznick’s (ultimately Gottlieb’s as well) hated forced companion, Katherine Hepburn.
“In each case [of reaction to her successive films], it was too much. Too much love and then too much hate. The Artist was not the best film of its year, and The Search was not the worst. You realise you’re in the middle of something that has nothing to do with you.” Ryan Gilbey interviews Bérénice Bejo about how she deals with lack of control, whether over the critics turning on her and husband/director Michael Hazanavicius or dealing with the existential blow of terrorist attacks on French soil.
“The way I generally work is that I do try to leave as many decisions as I possibly can to the day of, because it feels like that’s where you’re most in tune to what’s going on. I sort of feel like my job is to be a conduit to opportunities, to maximize the creativity of the day itself—because that’s when the cameras are running. That’s the important thing to me. Some of these shots you need to think about it advance; you need to have some ideas for them. And some of them are things where you just go, ‘Well, let’s try that.’” Hell or High Water’s David Mackenzie talks with Ignatiy Vishnevestsky on the benefits of shooting quickly and on the cheap.
Director Arthur Hiller was part of the class of Playhouse 90, developing his craft directing live TV drama before moving to such TV shows as Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rifleman, Naked City, and Route 66. He made his feature debut with the 1957 film The Careless Years but remained primarily a TV director until the mid-1960s and directed his biggest hit in 1970: Love Story, which earned Hiller his sole Academy Award nomination. He directed two Paddy Chayefsky scripts (The Americanization of Emily, 1964, The Hospital, 1971), brought two Neil Simon plays to the big screen (The Out-of-Towners, 1970, Plaza Suite, 1971), and directed Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). He directed a musical (Man of La Mancha, 1972), a horror film (Nightwing, 1979), and one of the first serious studio dramas to explore a gay relationship (Making Love, 1982), and was picked by Alan Arkin to direct The In-Laws (1979), considered by many (this writer included) to be one of the funniest American films of its era. He also served as president of the Director’s Guild of America and of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award in 2002. He was 92. Dave Kehr for The New York Times.
Kenny Baker was the man in the R2-D2 suit in Star Wars (1977) and its next five sequels and prequels (as well as the notorious made-for-TV The Star Wars Holiday Special). The British actor, who measured 3’8″ high, spent his life in show business, skating in ice shows, performing stand-up comedy, and appearing in variety shows. On the big screen, his biggest role outside of the Star Wars universe was playing Fidgit in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). He had small roles in Flash Gordon (1980), Amadeus (1984), Mona Lisa (1986), and Labyrinth (1986) and co-starred in the BBC adaptation of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989). He passed away at the age of 86 after a long illness. Nicola Slawson for The Guardian.
Fyvush Finkel had a long career in Yiddish theater before he broke through to mainstream audiences with a featured role in the TV series Picket Fences and later on Boston Public, both from creator / producer David E. Kelley. On the big screen he appeared in Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Q & A (1990), For Love or Money (1993), Nixon (1995), and in the prologue of the Coen Bros.’s A Serious Man 92009). He died at the age of 92. Joseph Berger for The New York Times.
“What kind of time machine is it that involves little more than covering the eyes? (To be precise, the hero was given some intravenous injections, too, but these served likewise to numb the senses, unraveling “the present and its certainties.”) My hunch is that covering the eyes and putting a record on may contain something of the time machine in and of itself.” The release of La Jetée’s soundtrack on a collector’s LP prompts Matthew H. Evans to a lovely exegesis of the bottomless philosophical meanings of memory in Marker’s half-hour short.
“Wise Blood sticks exceptionally close to the incidents and dialogue of its source. Its great faithfulness to O’Connor lies elsewhere, though: in the actors’ tactile realization of her characters, in the uncanny sense of being in a place that exists both in real time and outside of it, and in Huston’s determination to preserve the inexplicable mystery of Hazel Motes.” Stuart Klawans finds John Huston made just about every right directorial choice you could hope in the impossible task of adapting Flannery O’Connor to the screen—especially the proverbial 90% of the job that’s casting.
“Herzog grins as he takes a seat in a conference room at UCLA, which has been set up for an event later this evening. His eyes droop, but his skin is remarkably smooth, like the surface of a slightly underinflated balloon. And then there’s that voice—silky, portentous—you can imagine it coming out of a GPS system giving driving directions to Valhalla. ‘I like to look back at the evolution of modern human beings,’ he says of his interest in the Internet. ‘Using fire or electricity was an enormous step for civilization, and this is one of those. And I think the poet must not avert his eyes.’” Jason Tanz’s profile of Werner Herzog makes a lot of hay over the meme-ification of its subject, the fun the Internet has mocking his somber philosophical ramblings. But almost accidentally the piece also shows what a level-headed hustler the director has to be to constantly keep working, convincing his backers to expand their plans for online advertisements and finance his latest documentary feature—Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World—the outtakes from which themselves are now lined up to be a television series.
“Luis Buñuel is usually regarded as quintessentially Spanish, yet he only made three films that fully qualify as Spanish — a short documentary called Land without Bread (1932) and two features, Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970). Furthermore, Viridiana created such a scandal in Franco Spain that when it was rejected by the censors there, it was identified exclusively as a Mexican feature, simply because it had a Mexican coproducer and by then all its Spanish credentials on paper had been destroyed (a tale told by one of its two Spanish producers, Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella). Tristana, on the other hand, stars Catherine Deneuve in the title role, a French actress whose Spanish lines had to be dubbed by someone else. And every other film by the “most Spanish of Spanish directors” is either French or Mexican.” Jonathan Rosenbaum has posted an interesting 2008 article he wrote on expatriate filmmakers—both those who thrived and some (including Fuller and Makhmalbaf) whose filmmaking suffered outside their native lands as if they’d been cut off from their source. Via Criterion.
“One cannot make films if he does not like life, if he does not believe, above all, that the physical manifestations are privileged. The body does not lie, nor does the human face: this is the strength of the cinema and its health as opposed to literature.” Kino Slang has provided translations of two rapturous appreciations by Alexandre Astruc on Howard Hawks—specifically on Rio Lobo (“Unlike so many young people whom we know only too well, this old, super-silvered fox, Howard Hawks, is not going to permit his action to slow down and spoil our pleasure under the pretext of philosophizing or of making crocodile tears flow by lingering on rows of corpses which are barely cold and which he just lined up”) and Rio Bravo (quoted above). Via Mubi.
“The thing about Brother is that it’s stubbornly linear, but so suggestive that it just begs for inconclusive allegorical readings: a plot as simple and elemental as dirt, seeded with Freudian overtones, unaddressed nationalist subtexts, and black humor. The good stuff, in other words. Everything looks salvaged or secondhand. In most cases, it was.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky revisits Balabanov’s Brother and finds the film still so spare and ingenious it overcomes its budgetary and thematic limitations—and even its “deranged” sequel, so crude and nationalistic it smashes to rubble the former film’s ambiguities.
Among the new Criterion releases, a pair of films that engage history and/or national myth with radical, indelibly modern style. David Bordwell outlines many of the innovations that make King Hu’s A Touch of Zen so different from its supposedly less “classical” contemporaries. (“This long opening not only builds up curiosity but also asks us to enjoy the visual values of Hu’s sumptuous costuming, chiaroscuro sets, and widescreen compositions full of graceful character movement. In one shot, the mysterious stranger dodges out of sight. Why? The monks’ saffron robes ease into the frame as a subdued burst of color in the pale street landscape, setting up a motif that reaches fruition, ninety minutes later, when golden blood streaks down a sash.”) While James Quandt findsMuriel the culmination of Resnais’s denied but obvious fascination with time and memory. (“Like the man who asks where the center of the city is only to be told that he is already in it, Muriel’s viewer may be left grasping for narrative and temporal coordinates. The film’s anxious, shardlike editing—Resnais claimed that the cuts numbered close to a thousand, though others have subtracted a hundred or two from that total—detailed in Cayrol’s script and ostentatiously announced by that initial cubist fusillade, further confounds the sense of duration and chronology, despite the scenario’s linear, symmetrical five-act structure. With its disorienting ellipses, compressions, attenuations, and its obsessive repetitions, Muriel anticipates the “shattered time” of that other Resnais masterpiece 1968’s Je t’aime, je t’aime but, without the latter’s memory machine and use of flashbacks, can be all the more confounding.”)
If any question remained of Leo McCarey’s place in the pantheon, MoMA’s retrospective of the director should finally put paid to any respectful but ultimately dismissive appreciations of him as an impeccable craftsman. The series has Nick Pinkerton considering the contradictions of McCarey’s career, and the beautiful music he could coax, both out of his onset piano, played during down time, and his actors on the screen. (“McCarey was parochial and universal. His approach was, as the saying goes, “revolutionary,” though like more than a few revolutionary artists he found the prospect of actual revolution abhorrent. He was both devout Catholic and a right-winger—and a sharp satirist of the institutions which he held dear.”) For Aaron Cutler, the humanism he showed for all his characters is paramount. (“McCarey was fundamentally a comic filmmaker, and he used comedy to help create sympathy and compassion for basic human efforts. Humor often arises through the beautiful personal recognitions that take place for the characters in his films—the small, wordless instances of revelations in which peoples’ faces show realizations that their entire lives have changed.”) While a 2012 essay on Ruggles of Red Gap has Dan Sallitt tracing McCarey’s character-based, observational humor back to his silent days. (“It’s fascinating that McCarey sweats over a scene like this as if he were still building laughs for Laurel & Hardy, even as he fully exploits the benefits of dialogue to craft detailed and unusual characterisations. One doesn’t feel a clash between particularised observation and the universal language of gags and comic effects – perhaps because McCarey finds ways of placing even individualised traits in a universal context.”)
“As soon as she filed suit, Jack Warner wrote to every studio in town to remind them that she was still effectively under contract. In court the studio didn’t hesitate to fight dirty, insinuating that an affair was the real reason the actress had turned down one movie. The Warner attorneys, however, hadn’t reckoned on the de Havilland sang-froid. She had spent years on set with Michael Curtiz, one of the most notorious yellers in the business; these guys were nothing. So when one lawyer thundered, ‘Is it not true, Miss de Havilland, that on the morning of January 16, you wantonly refused to show up for work on Stage 8?’ ‘Certainly not,’ came the reply in that musical de Havilland voice. ‘I declined.’” In this week that has seen cinema lose so much let’s begin with a tribute to one of its enduring survivors, Olivia de Havilland, whose 100th birthday is aptly celebrated by Farran Smith Nehme.
“But even character does not exist in isolation. It is formed by an environment. And the immediate environment for noir is the world of capitalism. Of course, the majority of American films made during this period were set in capitalist societies, but noir is notable for stripping its milieu of any features not directly related to the circulation of money.” Staying at Sight & Sound, Brad Stevens limns some of the narrative tropes of film noir as played out in that quintessential example, Out of the Past.
“At times, he spontaneously pulls over to the side of the road for a good five or ten minutes to finish a train of thought—about life or death or demons or fears or his favorite soccer team in Argentina, San Lorenzo. About the time in the wilds of New Zealand when he skinned, cooked, and ate his own roadkill. (“It was there.”) […] We could’ve gone straight to Watertown and stayed there, and we could’ve gotten there a hell of a lot faster, but Mortensen, his two hands resting gently on the bottom of the steering wheel, doesn’t like to drive too fast. He doesn’t want to miss a thing.” Viggo Mortensen does everything his own way, even the celebrity profile, which has him picking up writer Lisa DePaulo at the airport near the small town where he’s sitting deathwatch over his ailing father.
The journal Awotele, which profiles underseen African cinema from the perspective of underheard African critics, has a new issue on the challenges and rewards of multi-lingual cinema and new filmmaking technologies. Among the highlights (check the issue’s table of contents to learn what page to flip to), Martial E. Nguea considers “the reality of a certain conflict between the popular appreciation of filmmaker and professional distinctions awarded in different countries by different juries”; Michel Amarger recounts the multifaceted career (fictions, documentaries, gallery installations) of the “ambitious utopian” Jean-Pierre Bekolo Obama (“It is easy to believe him shen, from behind his round glasses, he defies his critics saying: ‘if it’s not mission impossible, I’m not interested.”); Claire Diao explores the hazards of a distribution system so indebted to French culture (“How can anyone fall so quickly from the spotlight and into the shadows…. It doubtless has much to do with the Francophone system of promoting African filmmakers.); Oumy Régina Sambou takes a more critical looks at the promise of new technologies than some of her fellow writers (“the new modes of distribution have led to changes in filmmaking and film distribution, but not to the point of democratizing their fabrication, and especially not their quality”); and Domoina Ratsara offers a specific cautionary tale looking at how the rise of distribution of Madagascar television has led to the proliferation of ads interrupting even cinematic endeavors. Via Tambay Obenson, himself via David Hudson.
“Never call Griffith quaint, either. If he was quaint at all, he was far-sightedly quaint. The naive excitement of grasping that all this fakery is genuine—meaning the way “How’d they do that?” used to play leapfrog in viewers’ minds with “Wow, they must’ve actually done that”—stayed part of the appeal of Hollywood spectaculars up through the late 1960s.” Starting with Griffith’s Babylon, with stops along the way for Tara, Metropolis, James Bond’s globetrotting, DeMille’s (and Las Vegas’s) Egypt and Harold Lloyd hanging from a skyscraper, Tom Carson takes a witty, oddly moving tour through Hollywood’s many fake worlds, and how they made so much more vivid an impression than the real one. Via David Hudson.
“Its hero might stumble over his words, but he does so in a Jimmy Stewart-like fashion, so full of gee-whiz energy that he sometime forgets himself before zooming off to the next crazy coincidence. The film is full of daytime shots and bright light, of reflections off the cars and planes, checkerboard dance floors, sequined dresses and metal helmets that make up its mise-en-scène. Most crucially, the movie’s spirit is deeply optimistic—it uses its satire not just to poke fun at old-time serial clichés, but to cast a light back on the present, and remind us of what we might have lost in the 53 intervening years.” Now that Marvel movies have proven the economic viability of upbeat superhero flicks, Brian Doan looks back to notorious flop The Rocketeer as a bright charmer ahead of its time.
Picking some highlights from MOMA’s ongoing retrospective of Universal pictures from the ’30s, Imogen Sara Smith looks at three films apiece from a pair of directors deserving greater attention. The cinematic flair of Edward L. Cahn enlivens three explosive portraits of society collapsing: Law and Order, Afraid to Talk, and Laughter in Hell. (“In these films it’s as though people are so consumed by the fight to survive, or by the determination to forget their worries, that they have no time for private emotions. Society itself is so anxious, so hysterical, so compulsively bitter, that it takes the place of individual psyches. Everyone is part of one big nervous breakdown.”) While Seed, Back Street, and Only Yesterday have Smith marveling at John M. Stahl’s invisible manipulation of emotions and his facility with shifting empathy among his characters. The female ones at least; John Boles remains mostly a dull cad in all three. (“The three rarely screened Stahl films form a set of variations on a theme, female devotion and self-sacrifice. They treat this theme with unusual nuance and ambivalence, both accepting the great loves—whether maternal or romantic—to which the women give their lives, and looking with a cool and even cynical eye at how little they get in return.”
“What’s established in a film like Au Hasard Balthazar is a teeter-totter rhythm, an oscillation between the film you’re watching and another taking place over your shoulder, sliding into view with a lithe camera movement, or a cut that elides the passage of time. In short, what often comes across in reviews as stiff, boring art movies are exactly the opposite: not empty but teeming, not cold but visceral, not dry but saturated.“ With Au Hasard Balthazar hitting 50, Jamie N. Christley praises how Bresson’s total command keeps slipping the film’s message, and even its ostensible ever-enduring protagonist, out of our grasp. And Leigh Singer compiles a gallery of Bresson’s key techniques, screenshots of potent dissolves, blank faces, and so many expressive hands. Via Movie City News.
With a new collection of their writings and MOMA mounting the first complete retrospective of their films, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are the subjects of a pair of pieces at Artforum. P. Adams Sitney offers the overview on a career that never compromised or offered an easy way in for the viewer. (“One sometimes gets the impression that they were forever challenging themselves to find texts that made complacent resolutions less and less amenable, and then to offer them up to cinema so nakedly that their skeletal structure could not be eluded.”) And James Quandt tries to fitSicilia! in with the couple’s musical films. (“Aside from a folk song and the Beethoven string quartet that introduces and ends Sicilia!, the film avoids nondiegetic music, but it is itself structured as a chamber work in four movements, and the idiosyncratic delivery of the baroque dialogue often hits the ear as discordant ariettas and semi-recitatives.”) Film Comment, meanwhile, offers an excerpt from the aforementioned collection, a letter from Huillet to Nuances magazine on the impossibility of viewing artpieces at museums hanging them up behind occluded glass. (“It was horrible: each painting was now under armored glass, and often damaged in the process (new little cracks, etc.). When we protested this madness, saying that it’s better to risk a—rare—act of madness than to make the paintings invisible—reflections, etc.—and surely damage them, we were told, grudgingly: It was a requirement of the insurance….”)
“Canon City is an art film made on the terms of an unpretentious hardboiled procedural—a breathless true-crime piece in which Hadley’s delivery of the word “dreaming” lands perfectly on a dissolve from a real cell block to a prison cell set.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky plunks for Crane Wilbur’s prison-escape film, which, with the invaluable help of John Alton, straddles blunt docudrama and the heightened use of “spaces that double as metaphors,” as one of Poverty Row’s great triumphs.
“Maybe even more than MGM anticipated, it was perfect Depression-era escapism: one of those thirties movies that take place in drawing rooms where the ceilings are about twenty feet high, where men are always in formal wear and women, even in the afternoon, wear floor-length lounge gowns and speak in that bright, quick, affected accent that no real American ever used.” Charles McGrath recounts how Van Dyke’s brisk engagement, a script that expanded upon Hammett’s witticisms, and impeccable casting (including a change in Asta’s breed) made The Thin Man less a whodunit than a classic screwball comedy of marriage draped around a murder mystery.
David Bordwell’s two most recent blog entries celebrate a pair of filmmakers who take their undeniable influences and transform them into something so distinct and personal they seem utterly original. By now it’s accepted that Citizen Kane didn’t innovate so much as synthesize with an until then unreached purpose and power; Bordwell does a fine job showing the precedents for Kane’s low-angled, long-take compositions and zig-zagging flashback structure even as it transcends them all. (“Most filmmakers who used these depth schemas inserted them into passages of orthodox scene dissection. The depth shots might establish a locale, or they might be inserted into a series of analytical cuts, or they might be part of a shot/ reverse shot pattern. But in Kane you’re forced to notice the Baroque plunge of space because the lengthy take rubs your nose in the flashy composition.”) While reacquainting himself with the movies of Terence Davies has him rapturous over the director’s unique amalgam of autobiographical detail and Hollywood memories. (“Davies understood, as so many postwar critics of mass culture didn’t, that Hollywood, for all its formulas and conventions, captured genuine feeling; indeed, those very formulas and conventions released that feeling. In Davies’ hands, however, the feelings gain a rougher texture. In tales of patriarchal power and everyday betrayals, echoes of the yearning of Judy Garland and the vibrato of Doris Day seem distant and distorted. Davies finds the evanescence hidden in Yankee exuberance, and he takes it very personally.”)
“Dix constantly views life as though it were a script he was writing—one wonders if he notices the echoes of Althea Bruce’s silly plot in his own relationship with Laurel—and Ray uses the character’s shoptalk as a scalpel with which to probe the gap between movies and reality. Fixing breakfast for Laurel after they have become lovers, Dix explains that “a good love scene should be about something else besides love.” To illustrate this, he uses the scene at hand: he clumsily hacking away at a grapefruit, she half-asleep in her negligee: “Anyone looking at us could tell we were in love,” he says, but doubt edges into his voice. Laurel is not dopey with sleep, she’s paralyzed by fear of this unpredictably violent man. The scene is indeed about something besides love: it’s about love strained to the breaking point by lack of trust.” Imogen Sara Smith is as perceptive and persuasive as ever tackling that darkest, most downbeat of noirs, In a Lonely Place.
‘Tis the season, apparently, for new issues of film journals, which are arriving at a fast clip. The new issue of Alphaville, focused on women and media in the twenty-first century, Gina Marchetti considers the portrait of Hong Kong prostitution in a pair of collaborations between director Herman Yau and writer Elsa Chan (“Chan and Yau, in fact, gravitate toward the salacious with an eye toward social change and political critique”); Fiona Handyside finds unacknowledged trilogies on the themes of girls coming of age in the first three films apiece by Sofia Coppola and Mia Hansen-Løve (“Coppola and Hansen-Løve’s respective decisions to envisage their explorations of girls growing up as trilogies enable the films to take their time exploring the subtleties of girlhood, as the directors have the luxury of cinematic duration”); and Amy Heckerling’s two most recent, neglected films get sympathetic readings from Frances Smith (“Both I Could Never Be Your Woman and Vamps retain a playful ambivalence towards the two primary attitudes to the ageing process, namely acceptance and manipulation”). Among other highlights in the issue, Fiona Clancy analyses Sylvia Martel’s use of sound and image to portray a “crisis [that] is less one of biological motherhood than of its spirit—of motherliness”) and Beti Ellerson reports on the various options African women have before them to make themselves presences on screens that have heretofore failed to represent them (“the digital age is indeed a turning point for African women working in film and screen media”).
The new Offscreen is devoted to Theo Angelopoulos, with fittingly long articles analyzing the director’s tracking shots as moral choices from Elie Castiel (“The Angelopoulosian long take, then, encompasses the idea of integration, logical assembly of many visual and narrative elements in a single shot; a unity of thought. Is this choice not ideological?”) and as time machines opening up history for Olivier Bélanger (“The long take allows him to extract “pure time” from his film, and to return the past to the present”). Alain Chouinard considers howUlysses’ Gaze avoids the pitfalls of stereotypical attitudes usually imposed upon its Balkan subjects (“the film’s very specific representation of historical cyclicality, and its original presentation of involuntary memory re-historicize the Balkans by foregrounding an indivisible conception of temporality and historical continuity”); Donato Totaro has more measured praise for Angelopoulos while considering The Suspended Step of the Stork (“In any case, Angelopolous belongs to a once rare breed of film stylists that has grown considerably over the last thirty or so years: directors whose pacing and sense of movement is appreciably slower than most (and in some cases, slower than life as we feel it)”); and Betty Kaklamanidou dusts off an interview conducted with Willem Dafoe after working with Angelopoulos on The Dust of Time (“I love this thing about the little story next to the big story. When I watch his movies I experience things in a profound way. People walking through mud, people in the most simple chaste embrace, people running for a train, things like that… boats coming to you very slowly. You experience those in a way that you take it on personally because you get in the context and you identify with how these people are dealing with the big history and how they’re influenced by it. And that’s exhilarating to me. It philosophically engages me in a kind of dialogue about how strange and beautiful life is.”)