“Somebody’s Fiddle”: Traditional Music in “The Searchers”

Martin Pawley has barged into Charlie McCorry’s wedding to Martin’s childhood sweetheart Laurie Jorgenson, and the two have waded into a typically Fordian brawl—momentary comic relief from the darker concerns of most of The Searchers. Suddenly, Charlie interrupts the fistfight: “Somebody’s fiddle!” he cautions, picking up an overlooked musical instrument and handing it hastily out of harm’s way before Martin lands the next blow. It’s not the only, but probably the most audacious, announcement of the almost-sacred importance of music to this world and this film.

We’ve known it from the outset. In barely two minutes of film time, before the first word of the film is spoken, four pieces of music are thrown at us, each one dramatically distinct and loaded with information.

First, we hear what analysts have dubbed the “Comanches” theme, a powerful, full-voiced fanfare that evokes the traditional “Indian” music convention of the western film score, and startles us by supplanting the production company logo music that we’d normally expect in a studio film made in 1956.

After this short attention-getter, which firmly establishes the notion that this film will have something to do with Indians, we hear an acoustic guitar introduction and a sung ballad (written by Stan Jones and sung by The Sons of the Pioneers), the “title tune” of a film that came from an era in which it was common for a movie to have its own originally-composed theme song. Because this song has words, we need no prior experience of film or cultural heritage to grasp what it conveys, and add it to the “Indian” motif we heard first:

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?

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Something to Do With Death: A Fistful of Sergio Leone

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 9 No. 2, March-April, 1973]

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A Fistful of Dollars

Early in 1967, United Artists undertook a massive publicity campaign to sell the country on a recent acquisition that had broken box-office records in its native Italy and might, just might do the same in the States. After all, its inspiration was American—what more American than the Western? And its star was American: Clint Eastwood—true, the all-but-forgotten second lead of a TV series long sold into syndication, but the genuine article all the same. He sported a bit of stubble now, and had perfected a disinterested visual snarl that Rowdy Yates rarely had call to flash. And then there was the topography, animal and mineral. It would be hard to find corners of the American West more convincing than (and as undespoiled as) the Spanish canyons and deserts that served as exteriors alongside the Cinecittà interiors. And the faces of the supporting cast—swarthy, oily, Fellinily grotesque, latitudes and longitudes and generations and cultures away from any Central Casting selections—became landscapes themselves in huge, flyspecked closeup. The music capped and integrated the rest: memories of the Mascot-Monogram stock libraries filtered through a modern and European sensibility, the result an idiosyncratic, eclectic, delaying-then-surging score full of war whoops, hoofbeats, church bells, and hammers snicking back to full cock; it was startling, unnerving, and frequently breathtaking in its sense of aspiration and grandeur, and it somehow complemented the bizarre exoticism of the film, the familiar made fresh, new, and neurotically contemporary. A Fistful of Dollars swept the nation and “spaghetti Western” became a catchword.

A Fistful of Dollars won general audiences for its stylish embellishments of the new sadism and a narrower, more discerning audience for the perverse originality of the man whose talent embraced most if not all of the preceding categories—director Sergio Leone. Leone was original, and then again he wasn’t: almost scene for scene, his movie was an uncredited swipe of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. A lone gunman (Eastwood) rides into a border town where two equally reprehensible gangs are vying for control. He demonstrates his lethal competence to the satisfaction of both sides but will work for neither very long. Instead he arranges deception after deception calculated to keep the rivals at one another’s throats until all have been annihilated.

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“Everything happens at its appointed time” – Picnic at Hanging Rock

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

This is the second feature film from director Peter Weir, the first being the uneven but fitfully brilliant The Cars That Ate Paris in 1973. Though that movie was too scrappy to make Weir seem more than extremely promising, Picnic at Hanging Rock is something else: an absolute beauty, a movie entirely worthy of cult-classic status at the very least, and a major step forward for its director and, as far as I am able to tell from my very limited experience of it, for the Australian cinema.

That so delicate and subtle a movie could be made at all in Australia, a land much associated with crass behaviour and cultural gaucherie, may surprise some. It’s not, after all, a film made there by outsiders, like Walkabout. That so beautiful-looking and technically fastidious a film could emerge from Australia certainly surprised me: all the (few) other indigenous Antipodean movies that I’ve seen, including The Cars That Ate Paris, were very rough-edged, tending towards muddy colour and threshing-machine cutting, the hallmarks of cheapo filmmaking. Picnic at Hanging Rock is gorgeous, richly textured, full of pellucid colours and images that tremble between tableau and hallucination. It draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

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"Picnic at Hanging Rock" draws us into its web of mysteries, not urgently, not insistently, but seductively.

It draws us, in fact, the way that Hanging Rock, the “geological miracle” that is literally as well as figuratively at the film’s centre, draws its own victims (if that’s the word for them) to … what? where? Once we are into this film, we are also into another world, where we in the audience tread only on the outskirts. Certain of the film’s inhabitants – a trio of schoolgirls and the most senior of their teachers, all visitors to the rock on the dazzlingly bright St. Valentine’s Day of 1900 – penetrate the very core of this other world. Others stay on the periphery but seem to become more aware of it, more knowing of its secrets, than we ever do. Unarguably, no one in the film who comes into contact with Hanging Rock is unchanged by it – not the fat girl who can’t keep up with her three friends and so returns to the rest of the party, at the Rock’s base, screaming and bleeding without knowing why; not the French assistante who muses that the leader of the Rock-climbing expedition has “the face of a Botticelli angel” immediately before losing sight of her forever; not the young Englishman who ventures onto the Rock in search of the missing and himself faces the unacknowledgeable. (He, incidentally, is played by Dominic Guard, the go-between of The Go-Between, now on the brink of adulthood and as baffled here by children as he was in the earlier film by adults.)

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“It doesn’t take any imagination at all to feel awed” – Peter Weir

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Peter Weir was interviewed by Judith Kass in New York City on January 8, 1979, in connection with the U.S. opening of his new film The Last Wave. The Last Wave concerns a lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, who defends five aborigines accused of killing a sixth in Sydney, Australia. Through them Chamberlain comes in contact with what the aborigines call “dream time” and his own involvement with their myths.

Richard Chamberlain is principally known in this country as the star of the TV series Dr. Kildare. What is not so widely known is that after becoming a star he left the U.S. to learn how to act. Why did you choose him for The Last Wave?

I thought he’d always been photographed in white light. When I think back to Kildare I think of those hot lights and I thought he’d never been photographed at night. I don’t mean that literally, but there was something in his face; there was some alien quality, and in my story my character had that quality. I had one actor in Australia I’d thought of using, but he was unavailable. Also, we couldn’t raise all the money in Australia and we were looking overseas, and Chamberlain’s name occurred to somebody and I remembered that face, those eyes in particular.

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Rejoicing about things Australian: Phillip Noyce

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Judith M. Kass interviewed Phillip Noyce, the director of Newsfront, and David Rowe, the production and marketing consultant for the New South Wales Film Corporation, when they were in New York City in September 1978 for the film’s showing at the Lincoln Center Film Festival. Newsfront uses Australian newsreel footage and integrates it—and the historical events portrayed therein—with the fictional story of Cinetone, an Australian newsreel company trying to survive in the 1940s and 1950s, until the advent of television in 1956.

Whose idea was the film?

Phillip Noyce: It was actually the idea of the producer, David Elfick. He conceived the idea, he says, in conjunction with some discussions he had with other filmmakers. Bob Ellis wrote the original script and I adapted it to produce the final shooting script.

Where did the funding come from?

PN: The funding came from the New South Wales Film Corporation, which is the majority investor in the film, but the budget was also met by private investors, one of the more significant being an Australian distributor called Marshak. For instance, the New South Wales Film Corporation is heavily involved in devising methods with consultant merchant bankers to fund and solicit investment from other sources, so some of the authorities are very much involved in production in an entrepreneurial way. Each bank would be termed, for want of a better description, as executive producers.

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Review: Windows

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scène to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.

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Review: The Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“You know, I’m so tired of the road,” sighs Bette Midler into a telephone near the end of the film. There’s a hesitation in her voice on the word ‘road’ as if she were going to say, “I’m so tired of The Rose” instead. This would not be unusual since the Rose consistently refers to herself in the third person. The film concerns her attempts to slip out from under that suffocating title, and the most intriguing tension within The Rose is that while wanting to make this escape the Rose nevertheless takes refuge behind her misleadingly flowery appellation whenever necessary. She has the ability to snap to brash, acid-tongued life, even from the depths of depression, when she is confronted by an audience: pursuing her sulking lover (Frederic Forrest) through a men’s steambath while keeping up an entertaining banter for the boys; being easily coaxed onstage at clubs she entered as a spectator; and finally, hopelessly drugged at her last concert appearance. This idea of the Rose being more at home while performing than at any other time is underscored by the way director Mark Rydell has filmed an early concert number. “When a Man Loves a Woman,” an exhausting ballad, is shot almost entirely in one long take—and the interesting thing about this song is that the closer we get to the Rose, the more we realize that she is making love with the microphone, her lips trailing over it, with a greater intimacy than we see in her contact with humans.

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Review: The Life of Brian

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Ordinarily, nothing would be further from the point about Monty Python’s Life of Brian than the film’s reverence or lack of same toward the Christian faith. But with the film widely condemned, and even cancelled, on the basis of “blasphemy” and “sacrilege,” the issue becomes germane. Personally, I’ve been at a loss to find any such attitudes evident in the film, and have had to conclude that those who condemn it haven’t seen it, or didn’t know what they were looking at when they did. True enough, The Life of Brian inverts the Judaeo-Christian tradition by depicting the Romans as civilized and sophisticated, the Hebrews as hopelessly confused, uneducated, sloppy, and vicious. But the Romans come in for their share of jabs, too, in a series of gags based mainly on speech defects, physical handicaps, and sexual proclivities. This portrayal of the Romans seems broadly influenced by the popular BBC dramatization of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius—and far from being a parenthetical observation, that is precisely the point about The Life of Brian: it isn’t spoofing religion, it’s spoofing a genre.

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Review: The Silent Witness

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The Silent Witness is a 60-minute British documentary about the controversial Shroud of Turin, which contains a full facial and bodily image of a dead man who may or may not have been Jesus Christ. Producer-director David W. Rolfe figures—and rightly so—that few people will be likely to laugh off the whole subject once they’ve been given only a few of the extraordinary facts. He further assumes that there’s a varied audience for the Shroud, and thus his film: empirical, armchair sindonologists (investigators of the Shroud), 700-Clubbers, and subscribers to the Ancient Astronaut/Bigfoot/Elvis-spoke-to-me-from-the-grave axis. Everybody gets equal time in this movie, which is to say you get 20 minutes addressed to your particular camp. The merely curious will walk away stimulated, at the very least.

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Review: When Time Ran Out…

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Going in, Irwin Allen’s latest disaster movie sounds as if it ought to be the ultimate in the genre. Entitled When Time Ran Out…, complete with ellipsis, and based on a novel called The Day the World Ended, the picture starts off with science-fiction-y images of a lone, safety-suited figure picking his way over a steaming grey landscape that surely does suggest a planet in line for burnout. I began to speculate whether a guy like Irwin Allen would bother ripping off a guy like Robert Altman, and have ol’ Paul Newman, from Quintet more recently than Allen’s own The Towering Inferno, materializing out of another bleak futuristic landscape (at least futuristic-in-the-making). But then the solitary stroller turned out not to be Paul at all; and the catastrophe portrayed in When Time Ran Out… proved to be nothing more than your basic Devil at Four o’Clock volcanic trashing of a single tropical island—and maybe only half the island at that.

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Review: Cuba

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Robert Dapes (Sean Connery) is a British mercenary who arrives in Cuba to help train soldiers for Batista’s collapsing regime. When he checks in with the British embassy on his arrival, he is informed by an official (who gingerly supports Batista—until the prevailing winds blow from another direction) that if he gets into trouble he shouldn’t come to them: “You won’t be welcome, chum.” This is an attitude that the central character of Richard Lester’s Cuba runs into repeatedly: he is welcome almost nowhere. When he happens upon his former love Alexandra (Brooke Adams) playing tennis with her husband Juan (Chris Sarandon), she pretends not to recognize Dapes and tells Juan it was “Nobody.” Later, when she does confront Dapes, she can’t even remember his last name (though her husband remembers his face when introduced: “Juan, this is—” “Nobody?”). After they’ve rekindled the relationship and Dapes assumes she cherishes it as much as he does, Alex insists that it’s nothing and finally kisses him off by capsulizing the former affair: “I regard those as lost years. There was nothing—and I include you, Robert—nothing that made them memorable.” Shades of 10.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Nicholas Meyer, the popular novelist who contrived the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The Seven Per Cent Solution, and Holmes, Bernard Shaw, and a Jack the Ripper–style murderer in The West End Horror, has followed colleague Michael Crichton into the movie-directing racket; and I must say that I, no admirer of his thin and opportunistic literary conceits, am pleasantly surprised at the likability of his première effort. A lot of this has to do with the charm and wonderfully specific wit of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Herbert George Wells, and Mary Steenburgen’s as Amy Robbins, one of those liberated modern women H.G. proselytized for—and the most sweetly daft creature to come our cinematic way since Annie Hall; David Warner has also been encouraged to make Jack the Ripper something more than the sort of sallow geek this actor can play in his sleep (and apparently has, every so often). Clearly what Meyer has needed all along was a way to mix actors in with his rather undistinguished language.

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Review: Time After Time

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The time-travel premise of Time after Time is coyly signified by the use of the old Warner Brothers logo music of the Forties over the opening of the film; but in this self-billed “ingenious entertainment,” most of the ingenuity lies in the conception, very little in the realization. Nicholas Meyer’s direction, predictably, lies along literary rather than cinematic lines; the production design and photography are surprisingly uninventive for a film of such fantastic possibilities; and the special effects are downright flaccid. The montage depicting H.G. Wells’s journey through time—in pursuit of Jack the Ripper, who has preceded him into the Seventies by borrowing Wells’s time machine)—is a warmed-over 2001 lightshow, with the time traveler hearing, selectively, important voices of the 20th century, but seeing nothing at all: a pale contrast to the almost unbearably exciting time trip in the George Pal The Time Machine. The technological doubletalk about the key to the machine and its drive element is unclear, as is the reason why the machine, after being used by Jack, returns to its location a few seconds later, not to the original time at which it was borrowed—but it is so obviously there just to set up the gimmick to be used in the climax that one can predict the ending barely five minutes into the film.

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A Hole in the Heart of Man, Out At the Edge of the World: Some Remarks On the Cinema of Lisandro Alonso

[Published in conjunction with NWFF’s Hot Splice]

“Why is manhood… an endless highway?” – Adam Zagajewski, Tierra del Fuego

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Liverpool

The NWFF is to be commended for presenting a rare coup: a cycle of films that taken together evince a dedicated and visionary artist at work, the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso. The devoted following that Alonso’s work to date has commanded owes mostly to the fact that his films are both rarefied in their aesthetic and scarcely screened to audiences beyond the festival circuit. In a career that is nascent yet already overwhelmingly singular in style, here is a director who is clearly hitting his stride. We are fortunate to have the opportunity of seeing Alonso’s four features, and it is truly an  honor to have the director in attendance.

When Alonso’s debut La Libertad premiered in 2001, seeming to come out of nowhere save for its own rural milieu, it was a bit of an enigma to cinephiles. Was the story, much of it unfolding in real time in an unnamed outback in the Pampas, involving the quotidien labor of a woodcutter named Misael, a piece of documentary or fiction? Was Misael playing himself? Did such labor exist? And crucially, was this for real? And who the fuck did the director think he was, offering very little in the way of narrative save for the swinging of an ax, the buying of cigarettes, a ride in a pick-up truck with dog and timber, and the ritual slaying of an armadillo for dinner?

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Review: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens is a rowdy, funky, and occasionally obnoxious comedy which just happens to be one of the livelier entertainments of 1979. Meyer, of course, has long been known as an uncommonly talented filmmaker on the burlesque-house side of the industry, and—at the very least—his latest effort seems likely to more than satisfy his fans. The oversized female breasts, the nonstop libidinal overdrive, and the cartoonish sexual antics are all here in abundance. But there’s also a chance that word may get around about Beyond the Valley‘s generally happy mixture of sex, satire, and film art—in which case, some people may begin suggesting that this middle-American Rabelais’s new film is his masterpiece. The thing has a plot, but to summarize it would be to miss the point. It’s rather like what you would expect if a Henry Miller character had rewritten Our Town for serialization in Playboy or Penthouse. Better yet, and perhaps also worse, a Meyer press release describes the film thusly: “…an all out assault on today’s sexual mores and more—an end around attack against women’s lib—blasting through the male machismo syndrome—blasting the crap out of convictions, hang-ups, obsessions—the whole bag—sexually aggressive females, willing klutzy men, petroleum jelly, gingham and gossamer, tax-sheltered religion, black socks, bedroom prowess, bunko artists, big breast fixation, rear window red necks, therapeutic cuckolding, the sixty mile an hour zinger, born again immersion,” etc., etc.

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