The new Senses of Cinema has also dropped, with a focus on Asian documentary. Bérénice Reynaud offers an overview of underground and experimental Chinese documentary filmmakers, working with cheap, mobile digital cameras to chronicle such formerly taboo subjects as protests against forced dispossession by the state and the lives of gay Chinese; Dan Edwards traces Chai Jing’s remarkably popular (and since banned) exposé on Beijing’s unhealthy atmosphere, Under the Dome, to Western precedents such as An Inconvenient Truth but also homegrown examples such as River Elegy, which is credited with sparking the Tiananmen protests; Ma Ran looks at three film festivals (one of which has been shut down by the government), each small, remote, and far from the madding crowd, dedicated to the genre; and Anne Rutherford and Laleen Jayamanne interview Indian filmmakers Anjali Monteiro and K. P. Jayasankar about their decades of work in the field. (“[We] understand we are working with a medium that most of our subjects are not familiar with. They have their own traditions of storytelling and we are bringing to this encounter another kind of storytelling. So we want to question this premise of documentary film narratives made by us about them for consumption by us. How does one begin to subvert this?”) Outside of that focus, Ned Schantz, haunted by an image of the grim reaper he incorrectly remembered popping up in La Jetée, wonders about the legitimacy of hidden images in movies—and whether they’re worth anything or not even if they are there; and David Melville does the honors writing up Rex Ingram for the journal’s Great Directors portfolio.
“Malick’s three historical epics can be seen as extensions and refinements of the cinematic techniques and philosophical concerns initiated during the laborious filming and editing process for Days of Heaven (1978). Indeed, this was one of film critic Roger Ebert’s chief criticisms of The Thin Red Line; Ebert believed the film was uncertain and derivative. However, it’s now apparent that in actuality Days of Heaven is the film that feels like an artist’s compilation of uncertain notebook sketches and detail studies. Yes, it’s a film with the full backing of a studio at the height of a cultural and artistic revolution and so its pictorial scope is sweeping and expansive, but it was also a film born from conflict, change and exploration. It’s a film about soulless wanderers that, in retrospect, itself is searching for a greater calling beyond its own celluloid artifice.” In the first of two articles on Terrence Malick, Reno Lauro might lay on the philosophy a bit much, fantasizing the director stumbling across Deleuze texts during his Paris sojurn; then again, this is Malick we’re talking about, and Lauro’s connecting his cinema to the movies of Sokurov is both sourced and concretely rewarding.
“When Channel 4 approached [Kureishi], his first instinct was to write a sprawling multigenerational family epic that did for Pakistanis in Britain what The Godfather had done for Italians in America. Originally intended to be a film for television, My Beautiful Laundrette was ultimately a far more modest affair than Coppola’s masterpiece, but both films are about immigrants fighting to be accepted in their new homeland; when one of the characters says “I believe in England,” there is an unmistakable echo of the opening line from The Godfather.” Sarfraz Manzoor relates how much has changed—not unambiguously for the better—for England’s Pakistani community in the 30 years since My Beautiful Laundrette.
“A cat is an ambiguous gazing presence. Blofeld, James Bond’s arch-nemesis, has a cat. Would Harry Lime’s introduction in The Third Man work as well if it were a puppy that nudged itself between his shoes, rather than a stray kitten? Cats laze into suspense movies as though they were familiar windowsills facing the afternoon sun. But dogs—especially dogs in close-up, edited to suggest that they are reacting to something—aren’t open to interpretation.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky raises some interesting points on how much movies allow us to interpret for ourselves as he contemplates why the ubiquitous reaction shot of a cock-headed dog inevitably comes off as hokey.
“‘I die in Iron Man,’ says Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian man with a salt-and-pepper beard. ‘I die in Executive Decision. I get shot at by—what’s his name?—Kurt Russell. I get shot by everyone. George Clooney kills me in Three Kings. Arnold blows me up in True Lies…’ As Sayed and Waleed and the others describe their various demises, it strikes me that the key to making a living in Hollywood if you’re Muslim is to be good at dying. If you’re a Middle Eastern actor and you can die with charisma, there is no shortage of work for you.” Jon Ronson talks with seven actors of Middle Eastern descent on their current status in Hollywood—a paucity of good roles, but steady work if you’re willing to play terrorists. (Speaking of stereotyping, the article’s very title gets one thing wrong: one of the actors featured—Anthony Azizi, who blames the industry’s hang-ups on xenophobic hangover from when Omar Sharif dated Barbra Streisand—isn’t, in fact, Muslim-American.) Via Movie City News.
“At a cursory glance, he’s no different than any other movie nut. He enjoys a good potboiler, citing the Denzel Washington-led Equalizer remake and TV’s The Blacklist, Chicago PD and Law and Order: SVU as recent viewing highlights. He loves too many movies to pick a favourite, but he knows damn well that he hated 2013’s Will Smith vehicle After Earth. ‘It was so bad!’ he laughs. ‘And I was very frustrated, because I know if they gave me a fraction of that money, I could’ve done so much more.’” One old solution to the stereotype problem—taking up the camera and telling your own stories—is finding its latest manifestation in Columbus, Ohio, where Charles Bramesco finds Samatar Haji, filmmaker and co-founder of Olol Films, who’s been supplying the Somali émigré community with exploitation features and documentaries of their very own.
“But by continuously policing their ambitions, the Duplasses have been able to build an entire ecosystem for making the kinds of character-driven dramedies that the industry has all but abandoned. Mark concludes his keynote by reiterating his admonition to ignore the false lure of Hollywood success. Take it from him: Even if you become an indie-cinema celebrity with dozens of films and a successful HBO series under your belt, the cavalry is not coming. But then he gets to the kicker. ‘The good news is, who gives a fuck about the cavalry?’ he says. ‘Because now you are the cavalry.’” Jason Tanz profiles Mark and Jay Duplass, whose combination of pragmatism—their feature debut, The Puffy Chair, was built around some available props—and share-the-wealth generosity have led to a production career whose moderately-scaled Midas touch might stumble only if the two work themselves to death.
“Dickey wrote a long speech for himself to give as the sheriff. And Boorman was such a clever man and brilliant filmmaker he told him, ‘When you start this speech, you have to come to the front of the hood of the car and say that paragraph. Then come over to the window and talk to the character of Ed directly.’ So Dickey did it. And then of course what happened was that John simply took out the section where Dickey was standing in front of the hood. He got Dickey’s speech down to a workable size. But Dickey was an actor—he acted in his daily life. He put drama into everything. That’s what I figured out.” Timed to commemorate the publication of the novel, John Meroney’s oral history on the making of Deliverance focuses mostly on John Dickey’s possessive attitude towards the story and characters, and the friction that resulted. Which provides plenty drama enough for a good read. Via Movie City News.
“Now, one of the executive producers at the time was Marty Scorsese. And Marty’s independent film person was his ex-wife, a woman called Barbara De Fina, and there were some disagreements with Barbara…. Well, then Marty’s leaving, she says. And I’m like, oh fuck, Marty’s my idol—he’s leaving? And you know in terms of selling the movie, losing Marty’s name, I mean… there are no stars. So I call Larry and I go listen, if we make this deal, Marty is going to be gone. Do you care? And he goes, ‘Are we going to be able to start this summer? Yes? Then fuck him.’ The next thing I know we’re making a movie.” Another oral history about another film where a band travels through the wilderness, as Eric Hynes gets participants to recount the making of Kids. No real surprises, as the ones you’d expect to be obnoxious prove to be so and the ones who look back graciously have all gone on to better things.
“It’s important to read the first lines of the 1933 Maurice Walsh story on which the movie was based in light of the preceding two decades of revolutionary violence, and the generational curse of silence, disillusion, and suspicion that violence inspired…. The tone of those first lines muffles the triumphant peal of the story’s last lines, in which Kelvin’s new wife sighs with relief over having finally been able to “make a man of him.” It’s in a similar way that Ford’s The Quiet Man acts as a kind of contrast pattern to The Informant and The Plough and the Stars—a splash of color both enlivened and complicated by those films’ darker shades.” Revisiting John Ford’s Irish films, Max Nelson finds a more complex—and, for their times, politically engaged to a level unsettling for audiences—portrait than the blinkered sentimentality The Quiet Man’s ascendancy has made to seem the default.
“Like El Topo or A Clockwork Orange, it’s one of those rare movies that exists so far outside the boundaries of its chosen genre that there’s almost no other film to compare it to. Think Dr. Strangelove, only with more action; think Dirty Harry, except that the bad guy has a homemade nuke instead of a sniper rifle.” Also at Film Comment, Grady Hendrix on a film a world away from any of Ford’s (though he probably would have appreciated the film’s unique, tangled take on the generation gap), Hasegawa’s apocalyptic thriller The Man Who Stole the Sun. And be sure to check out the interview with the director Hendrix links at article’s end.
“At any given moment, the Packard labs are working on several different titles, all at varying stages of completion. During my visit, this list included Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; a one-reel sound film called Old Man Trouble; a 1951 commercial for Durkee’s Famous Sauce (starring Buster Keaton); and Fred Wiseman’s 1967 documentary about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, Titicut Follies.” As Bryan Gardiner’s list suggests, inclusiveness is the watchword at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, its 124 vaults, once the storage facility for billions of Federal Reserve dollars should the economy have needed capital infusion after a nuclear holocaust, now home to the Library of Congress’s collection, currently facing the more immediate threat of decay and data loss. Via Mubi.
“This lovely early sketch illustrates one of the various contradictions in Ford, namely how his reputation as a magisterial storyteller clashes with his predilection for leisurely digressions, for moments when characters gaze at the world outside their windows, engage in vaudeville turns, or simply sit and talk and remember. Ford’s art is an essentially meditative one, and Judge Priest’s flavor lies less in its dramatic plot than in the way small human details—say, how a party is viewed as an occasion both for matchmaking and for vote-hunting—are woven together into an affectionate picture of a teeming community.” Fernando F. Croce does a lovely job writing up three less appreciated—but by no means lesser—John Ford films playing as part of the Museum of Moving Images’s series: Judge Priest, Wagon Master, and the singular The Wings of Eagles.
A pair of legendary Hollywood hotels have their colorful history recounted. Kirk Silsbee runs down the scandalous past of Alla Nazimova’s Garden of Allah retreat, where the parties were so constant John Barrymore used to ride between the bungalows on a bike, lest the walk take time away from his drinking. (“New York drama critic Whitney Bolton, who lived at the Garden, wrote, ‘If a stark-naked lady of acting fame, her head crowned by a chattering monkey, chose to open the door to Western Union, no one was abashed, least of all the lady and the monkey.’”) Less salacious (it is written for PBS, after all) but no less gossipy, Hadley Meares visits the Knickerbocker Hotel, home or playground for the likes of Maureen O’Sullivan and Betty Grable in its heyday, but as hard times hit the building and the town, the site of downward spirals for Frances Farmer and D. W. Griffith. (“The building itself appears tired and worn out—and really who can blame it. For the Knickerbocker’s history has been as jammed packed and traumatic as any melodrama made by the city that it calls home.”) Via Matt Fagerholm.
Hey, remember a few months back when minor outrage was savored over the revelation that George Clooney high-hatted Brokeback Mountain producer and co-writer Diana Ossana backstage at the Oscars? Here’s Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh getting the story of the movie’s making from Ang Lee, James Schamus, and nobody else.
“[Lang] had trained to be an architect, and gave us the first city of the future. But those American films have a distinct, flat, bleak quality to their look. In The Big Heat, Gloria Graham even comes up with an aperçu to describe the decor: ‘Early nothing.’” David Cairns offers some ideas on why Lang’s American sets seem flatter and plainer than his European ones, even as all of them impress as “crime scenes in waiting.”
“Perhaps this is not so much anti-romanticism as ambivalent romanticism, love’s labour lost in a maze of qualifications and moment-by-moment hesitations. Lester’s style, with its quick changes of mood and broken connections (changes that can take place regardless of cutting speed), might almost be designed to foster ambivalence, never allowing feelings to settle long enough for characters to test whether they are genuine.” Richard Combs explores the ambivalence towards romance—and the breakdown it suggests of an even more fundamental dramatic trope, consistency of character—in the films of Richard Lester.
Also at Film Comment, Phuong Le looks back at Orson Welles’s post-Third Man cash-in, the radio show The Lives of Harry Lime; surprisingly, he doesn’t highlight one of the scripts that evolved into Mr. Arkadin, but rather an anti-imperialism farce that anticipates Wilder’s One, Two, Three.
“The computer is another tool, and in the end, it’s how you use a tool, particularly when it comes to artistic choices. What the computer did, just like what’s happened all through our industry, it has de-skilled most of the folks that now work in visual effects in the computer world. That’s why half of the movies you watch, these big ones that are effects-driven, look like cartoons.” Not that special effects supervisor Gene Warren Jr.’s words have any relevance to sequels currently in theaters, but Kenny Herzog’s oral history on the creation of Terminator 2’s T-1000 makes clear its success owed immensely to such human-scaled efforts as Stan Winston’s models, Robert Patrick’s acting, and a good script even the computer programmers could relate to.
“There was something about the chords and intervals he tended to use, too. I’m not educated enough to tell you exactly what he was doing but they’re never simple. I could always tell it was him before the credit appeared, and there was this little happy moment of settling in for a well-scored movie. And now that’s gone.” Matt Zoller Seitz and S. I. Rosenbaum share a delightfully fannish conversation saluting James Horner, dredging up their favorite deep cuts and never letting mournfulness spoil their gratitude for the music he left us.
“Every day from when I was 22 to 32, I deliberately and consciously did things to fight fear. Things I was afraid of, like guns, sharks, heights, success, intimacy? I’ve checked those off the list. Even in the beginning of my career, my confidence always came from being fearless. I always went in to auditions with the attitude “I dare you not to cast me.” I went in and did what I thought was honest, truthful and just different. Maybe it was wrong. I didn’t care.” Interviewed by Stephen Rebello, Jeremy Renner passes on the chance to apologize for supposed recent faux pas, instead doubling down on his admirable assertion that what you think of him doesn’t matter so long as he knows he’s in a good place.
“I struggle to slot material into a formula that requires a certain level of salacious content. Nothing that comes out of my little work tunnel seems to fit that quotient. I have a lot of trouble factoring the things I care about, and the subject matter I like to make films about, into anything that appeals to people who are looking for commercial success, or to make money from it. I am in a conundrum.” Uncommercial it may be, but from her discussion with Tasha Robinson it’s clear that Stray Dog director Debrah Granik has invested the documentary with the intelligence and emotional honesty of her previous features, at least.
“Films picture the world. My images of the world are impossible so you have to be alert. Hollywood makes films to conform a complete delusion. This is ideology. With Seeking the Monkey King (2011), for example, I want to bring people to the point of questioning what they see. You have the obligation to protect your individual perception. Think about it! I was talking about delusions, which is when you believe. I don’t want the audience to believe, I want them to be entertained by illusions that they recognize as illusions. That is the fun of it.” Victor Paz Morandeira talks with Ken Jacobs about 3D, the need to treat audiences as individuals, and America’s current (dismal, to their lights) politics; Jacobs, as is his wont, takes the opportunity to settle some old scores.
“I was trying to do a couple of movies a year around the band schedule ’cause I wanted to learn. So with Tim, Pee-wee was my first score, Beetlejuice was my fifth and Batman was my 10th. And at a certain point he asked me, ‘How are you doing four movies between my movies?’ And I go, ‘If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to step up to your films. I gotta learn how to do this.’ So I was champing really hard to fit a couple of films into my schedule for each year.” In the middle of prepping for a concert series celebrating his scores for Tim Burton, Danny Elfman talks with Kory Grow about one of the great composer-director collaborations.
“How many lines?” “No lines, I’m afraid. You will be put in a headlock.” Peter Strickland, whose films are deservedly renowned for their detailed, surreal soundtracks, does away with the visuals altogether, writing and directing a darkly comic play for BBC Radio. The Len Continuum stars Berberian Sound Studio’s Toby Jones as a struggling actor who can’t keep his foot out of his mouth, fills his prayers to God beseeching ill fortune to those around him, and generally comes off as an ass. Strickland’s acknowledged the character is as close to himself as any he’s written: “I like the idea that a lead character who is flagged up to be autobiographical is a complete prick.” (Don’t just bookmark for later; it’s only up for two more weeks.) Via Movie City News.
Sergio Sollima was the third great Sergio of Italian Spaghetti Westerns (along with Leone and Corbucci), and the most political, though he only contributed three films to the genre. After directing a trio of Eurospy films, he had his first hit with The Big Gundown (1966) with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian, and followed it up with Face to Face (1976) and Run, Man, Run! (1968), both with Milian. He also made his mark in the poliziotteschi genre (the violent Italian crime thriller) with Violent City (1970) and Revolver (1973) and directed the horror film Devil in the Brain (1972), and then spent the next couple of decades working largely in television, where he made the hit mini-series Sandokan (1976). He passed away this week at the age of 94. Dennis Cozzalio revisits his career and legacy at Indiewire.
The new 4K digital restoration of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), featuring Orson Welles in his iconic role of American black marketer Harry Lime, plays for a week at Sundance Cinemas.
When he first suggested I come to Ghana, I was too weak to climb stairs and said, ‘Do you want a corpse on your hands?’ Later I decided I’d be fit to travel, with one proviso: if I brought a wheelchair, someone would push me around. The answer came back: ‘A wheelchair will get you nowhere in terrain where I am shooting. I will give you four hammockeers and a sunshade bearer.’ Now that invitation, even if one had been dying, was irresistible.” Interview reprints one of the best portraits of Werner Herzog ever written, Bruce Chatwin’s visit to the set of Cobra Verde, based on Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah, a murderously hot Ghana shoot beset with rioting Amazons, Klaus Kinski at his most troublesome, and Herzog overseeing and somehow corralling the madness.
“Ecstasy is the sort of movie that you have to give yourself over to wholeheartedly or not at all. You can cut yourself off and laugh at all of its obvious visual symbolism (all those phallic symbols!) or embrace its trailblazing reaching for healing sexual congress. There are many different versions of Ecstasy, which caused a scandal wherever it was shown for many years, usually to men in raincoats who were somewhat disappointed by its earnestness, though surely not by the nude scenes of Lamarr skinny dipping and running bare ass through the woods….” Dan Callahan recounts the career of Gustav Machatý, which was obsessed with the pleasures and unwanted costs of sex before and long after he filmed Hedy Lamarr in writhing, delirious close-up.
“Production manager Dennis Jones filled out a report on each shooting day with codes listed to represent how each actor’s time was spent on that particular day and whether or not he or she was needed back at a subsequent time. On January 10, in the column for Stoltz, Jones wrote the letter F in black ballpoint. In this case, it stood for finished, but a number of other words could certainly have stood in its place, fired among the most gentle.” In an excerpt from his new book on the Back to the Future trilogy, Caseen Gaines details the production meetings that led to the replacement of Eric Stoltz in the film’s lead, and the not exactly displeased reactions of most of the cast.
“James Agee, Harold Lloyd, and John Ford all named it as one of their favorites, although they couldn’t agree on the title or director, and no one remembered the boxing match, just the pie fight. As Henry Miller (yes, that Henry Miller) put it, ‘There was nothing but pie throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left.’” One more (mostly) lost film recovered, and it’s a doozy: The Battle of the Century, the legendary Laurel and Hardy two-reeler containing what is surely the zenith of that enjoyable low-comedy staple, the custard pie fight. Silent London broke the news, and Matthew Dessem, who’s written a forthcoming book on director Clyde Bruckman, has the best account on how such a masterpiece went missing all these years.
“Sanaa had improved [at basketball], but not completely. She was better, but you couldn’t throw her out in a game and have her really hang. It just came down to finally my husband said, ‘Is this a basketball movie, or is it a love story?’ And at the end of the day, I realized it was a love story and you can fake a jump shot, but you can’t fake a close-up.” Lucy McCalmont compiles an oral history of Love & Basketball that’s not least rewarding for confirming that Gina Prince-Bythewood has known what she’s been up to from the jump.
At Mubi, a pair of articles on films that blend perennial genre verities with some fresh ideas. Jeremy Carr finds much to praise in Hondo’s admiring portrait of the Apache even as it hews to standard gender roles—however enlivened by Wayne and Geraldine Page—and tries to have it both ways in the action climax. (“But after the secure white victory, and with the consequential step toward the end of the Apaches as a way of life, Hondo laments, ‘Too bad. It was a good way.’”) While Sara Freeman notes that Basic, like all of McTiernan’s films, is concerned with its hero’s unlocking of a narrative puzzle, but that placing a woman in the role changes up the routine in rewarding ways. (“Captain Osborne feels perfectly in-sync with her environment. She even moves in perfect parallel with the wall paint. For the moment, she is in her element.”)
“The Western is a genre that, more than any other, has been connected to white chauvinism, but it’s also the only genre that, during its heyday, consistently gave the impression of the United States being what it actually was and is—an ethnically diverse polyglot experiment in democracy in which misunderstandings and outrages abounded and violence was frequently the first resort.” Nick Pinkerton runs through a dozen or so examples of Hollywood versions of Apache; nearly every one played by whites and “conciliatory rather than revolutionary,” but variously empathic, pained, and shamefaced for all that.
“Inspired by a childhood trip to a film festival honoring James Dean in the star’s hometown of Fairmount, Indiana, Jones decided Harry Dean was just as worthy. And though Stanton traveled from his adopted home of Los Angeles to Lexington in 2014, he was unable to attend the festivities this year, which seemed strangely fitting. As with most Harry Dean Stanton movies, you’re always waiting for him to appear.” James Hughes travels to Kentucky to visit the 5th Annual Harry Dean Stanton festival, whose attendees come off as charmingly obsessed as any other crew you’d find at a film convention, if considerably more laconic.
“‘Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?’ she asks Ben Lyon in Hell’s Angels, taking joy and pride in the way she makes his temperature rise. The distinctive thing about Harlow is her total lack of shame about sex on screen, her sheer anticipatory enjoyment of it as an idea, and an ideal of pleasure, a force that totally loosens her up. Harlow’s relation to sex in her movies makes Bow seem slightly jittery and insecure about it in comparison, and makes Monroe look like a sexual basket case.” Dan Callahan’s superb series of actor appreciations continues with a salute to Jean Harlow’s tragically brief but so very, very bright incandescence.
The Variety headline read: “Richard Corliss, Venerable Time Film Critic, Dies at 71.” Why was this jarring? Not the news itself: that had already been broken by Corliss’s own magazine, which published a proud and affectionate eulogy for an invaluable colleague and assembled some highlights from his three-and-a-half decades’ work at 50 Rock. The fact that his age was 71? A year or so ago, his longtime friend David Thomson had teased him in print about closing in on 70, so one could do the math for oneself. No, the problem was the adjective: “venerable.” Yes, it means honored, esteemed, admired—all apt, and earned many times over. But part of the word’s etymological backstory has to do with being old, perhaps stodgy. That was never Corliss, never imaginably could be. Read him at age 21, read him at 71, read him anywhere in between, and you’re in the company of a sensibility insatiably curious, nimble as a springbok, focused as a base runner, fresh as a croissant on a sunny Cannes morning.