Interview: Kevin Smith and Zack and Miri

When I first interviewed Kevin Smith a few years ago, during his press tour for Jersey Girl, I apparently caught him on a bad day. He was tired, distracted, stretched out on a hotel couch and chain smoking with an oblivious reflex. You don’t really expect a connection when you interview a filmmaker or a screenwriter or an actor – it’s usually just another in a long, long line of obligatory promotional obligations for the artist. The best you can hope for is to interest them with a challenging question or a perceptive remark. I can’t say I came through with either when Smith came back through Seattle to promote Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but he was far more engaged in this return engagement interview. It was like kicking back with a guy you just met at a party, relaxed and laid back and without pressure. And he certainly didn’t edit himself for print. His language is what you might call colorful, dotted so offhandedly and naturally with George Carlin’s seven dirty words that you hardly notice it. Until you start transcribing. I published an abbreviated version for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and scrubbed much of that language out of the piece. It’s intact in this full version of the interview, which was conducted a couple of weeks before the release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Did you go to your tenth annual high school reunion?

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks cast their porno
Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks cast their porno

We didn’t have a tenth but I went to my fifteenth and just this summer they had a twentieth and I went to my twentieth, which they held on a boat. A three-hour tour, kind of like Gilligan’s Island, so that was a little nerve wracking. And it’s the kind of thing where you can’t get off the boat. If you’re like, “This sucks, I want to go home,” you’re stuck, you’re on the boat. Thankfully, it was kind of cool. I didn’t have any adversarial relationships in high school, there was nobody that I was like, “I can’t wait to see this motherfucker and tell him what an idiot he is.” I’m pretty cool with everybody and I stayed in Jersey for years after Clerks so I saw a lot of these people anyway, mostly every month.

So your reunion experience didn’t inspire you to make your own home porno.

No, it didn’t push me over the top. I had the other career going on. I mean, I can never really think about porn in regards to myself because I would just never want to see myself in a porno.

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Budd Boetticher: A DVD Wish List

The release of The Films of Budd Boetticher finally brings five essential films by the director to DVD. Along with Paramount’s release of Seven Men From Now a few years ago, his career-defining “Ranown Cycle,” the six westerns starring Randolph Scott that made Boetticher’s reputation, is now available on home video. It’s a triumph, but it’s only a start. The five films in the box set more than double the amount of films by Boetticher available on DVD. Boetticher’s first western, the 1951 The Cimarron Kid with Audie Murphy, and his 1953 The Man From the Alamo with Glenn Ford, arguably the best film of his Universal period, are available in the Universal budget release Classic Western Round-Up Volume 2 (why didn’t they draw a couple of Boetticher’s other Universal westerns to fill out of the set and make it an unnamed tribute to the director?). And then there’s Behind Locked Doors, a genuine B movie whose reputation is based largely on the appearance of cult actor Tor Johnson as a crazed wrestler in an insane asylum. As a footnote, The Fleet That Came To Stay, a combat documentary short that Boetticher made while serving in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during World War II, is available on various DVD anthologies, including the VCI release Combat Camera: The Pacific.

That’s nine features in a career that spans 35-some features and numerous television productions.

Here’s a checklist of ten Boetticher films that I would lobby for DVD release:

Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"
Otto Kruger in "Escape in the Fog"

The Missing Juror (1944) / Escape in the Fog (1945)

These two films from Boetticher’s apprenticeship in the Columbia B movie factory are nothing like the films that made his reputation, but they are engaging and stylish thrillers that make the most of his budgetary limitations. Each runs barely over an hour. Together, they would make an engaging double feature disc. Languishing somewhere in the vaults of Sony, they have never been released on home video but do sometimes appear on TV.

The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951)

The first Budd Boetticher movie. Literally. His previous films were all credited to Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name. With this semi-autobiographical film, about a brash American in Mexico who befriends and trains under a legendary bullfighter, he used the name we all know him by: Budd Boetticher. The film, produced by John Wayne, earned Boetticher his only Oscar nomination (for “Best Original Story”) and raised his stature in the industry, but the film released in 1951 was not the film he intended; under the guidance of John Ford, the film was cut down to under 90 minutes to get a release. In 1987, the film was restored to its original 124-minute running time and shown at film festivals and subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc. A special edition featuring both the release version and the restored Director’s Cut is long overdue.

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Burt Kennedy: Writing Broadway in Arizona

Burt Kennedy has a long resume as a director, with such credits to his name as The Rounders, Welcome to Hard Times and Support Your Local Gunfighter.  But he started his film career as a screenwriter under contract to John Wayne and made his reputation with four brilliant westerns that Budd Boetticher directed and Randolph Scott starred in: Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. I had been trying to get an interview with Kennedy for a long time. All it took, it turns out, was a little help from Budd Boetticher. During my second trip to interview the Boetticher I mentioned my problem in connecting with Kennedy. He simply called him up set up a meeting for later that day, and I raced to catch Kennedy in his home in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles before he left that evening for a rodeo (seriously). I eventually interviewed Kennedy twice, first in 1989 and then again in1994. In these excerpts he talks about his origins and discusses his work with Boetticher beginning with Seven Men From Now, Kennedy’s first produced script. He died in 2001.

I want to ask about your background. I read, in old publicity reports, that you were the son of vaudevillians.

Burt Kennedy in 1989. A poster for his film "Support Your Local Gunfighter" is on the wall. Photo by Sean Axmaker

Yeah, my mom and dad were a headline act in vaudeville for 20 years, the Keith-Orpheum circuit. They were dancers. As a matter of fact, they danced in the Webber-Field show in New York in 1911 and Vernon and Irene Castle were in the chorus. And of course Vernon and Irene Castle did dances later on that people could do. My folks didn’t, my folks were just real good dancers, but that’s why they didn’t have the popularity that Vernon and Irene Castle did. They had a great act. And I was born in a trunk.

Born on the road?

Yeah. I don’t really remember much of it. I remember some because I worked in the act when I was about 5 and I think I was a has-been at 7. Vaudeville didn’t just die out, vaudeville just died overnight. I mean radio is kind of still around, you know, it had its heyday and then it went gradually downhill, but it’s still there. But not vaudeville. One day vaudeville was going full bore and the next day pictures took over and all these acts were out of business.

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Budd Boetticher: A Career

They can lick you (which they cant) or they can fire you, and once you know that youre not afraid of anybody. – Budd Boetticher on producers, 1988 interview

Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. The 20 year old kid from a wealthy family decided he wanted to learn how to bullfight and wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for a Hollywood film. That’s the short version.

Budd Boetticher working his horses in Ramona, CA, 1992. Photo by Sean Axmaker

“I grew up rich, spoiled, and arrogant,” he joked in a 1992 interview. “It was bad enough being rich, but to be a rich athlete, I must have really been obnoxious.” This sports-mad son of a successful Illinois hardware magnate had planed for himself a career in athletics and threw himself into boxing, track, and football. At Ohio State, a knee injury (his second on the gridiron) sidelined him and he took a year off to recover. His plan was a long tour of South America, but his trip stopped short when he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. It was their sponsorship that gave this big, muscular American college kid entry into a sport where Americans were almost unknown.

When his parents, who had since moved to Los Angeles and moved among the best social circles, found out he braving the bulls in South of the border rings, his mother plotted ways to pull him safely back North. Her solution: land him a job as bullfighting adviser on a movie. With a little help from family friend Hal Roach, he was hired onto Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand, teaching Tyrone Power his craft and advising screenwriter Jo Swerling on details of bulls and bullfighting. More important to his calling and his career was the crash course he got in moviemaking. In his autobiography When in Disgrace, Boetticher gave credit to editor Barbara McLain for explaining and illustrating the mechanics of storytelling in the most practical manner. The bullfighting kid who never really thought much about the movies was suddenly hooked on making them.

Boetticher worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia. His first credited feature, One Mysterious Night (1944), was a 60 minute Boston Blackie mystery destined to be forgotten almost immediately after it was released. He signed it Oscar Boetticher, Jr., his given name.

Those were the days when Hollywood apprenticed its own, promoting from the ranks, and Boetticher learned some of his most important lessons then: how to stay on a 12 day schedule, how to deal handle the front office, how to hold your authority a crew much older and more experienced than you. Most of these films are unavailable, but the few I managed to see almost 20 years ago were entertaining, lean, a little rugged, and better than one would expect. My memories of Escape in the Fog, for instance, are of the exterior fog that envelopes the night in a blanket. It creates a nice mood of mystery while masking the limitations of his B movie sets. Following his Columbia apprenticeship he spent a few years in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy (where he turned out documentaries and service films for both civilians and soldiers), he returned to Hollywood to find himself back in the B movie rut.

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Budd Boetticher and the Ranown Cycle: “What a director is supposed to do”

My first contact with Budd Boetticher was in 1987. I was a graduate student in film studies at the University of Oregon and I thought I was getting his agent’s phone number from the DGA. I found out very quickly that it was his home number when he answered personally. He was an affable man and very forgiving of the enthusiastic student who tried to lure him north from his home in Ramona, California for a retrospective of his films at the U of O in Eugene. “I don’t want to go to a tribute where no one is interested in my films,” he replied in his matter-of-fact, gruff/friendly manner. “Why don’t you come down and visit me here instead?” I did, numerous times, conducting hours of interviews with him between 1988 and 1992. I stayed in touch with him and his wife, Mary, until his death.

In the following excerpts he talks about his films with Randolph Scott and Burt Kennedy and touches on making Arruza. For more on Boetticher’s love affair with bullfighting and the amazing odyssey in Mexico while making Arruza, try to track down his autobiography When in Disgrace, a very entertaining read (and, sadly, out of print).

Spoiler alert: Be warned that Boetticher discusses key scenes and plot points of the films.

You never directed John Wayne in a film, but he played a major part in your life. He produced your breakthrough film The Bullfighter and the Lady and he was at least partially responsible for Seven Men From Now. How did you connect on Seven Men From Now?

Gail Russell and Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"

I was doing pictures at what used to be Selznick studios, I forget what they called it when I was there, and Duke was doing a picture with Ford and he called me in. He said “Bood, I’ve got a script over here I want you to read,” so I came over and picked it up at lunch and I read thirty-five pages and I walked back on the set and he was sitting with a bunch of people and I said “Duke, I want to do the picture.” He said “Well Jesus Christ, you can’t read the whole damned script in an hour.” I said “I read thirty-five pages. This is brilliant! I’d like to meet the author.” He said “Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy,” and Burt stood up. We shook hands and I said “Mr. Kennedy, you are a brilliant, brilliant writer. I don’t have to read anymore. I’m so glad I met you.” He said “Oh, we met a long time ago. I played the rabble rouser in A Man From Texas [working title to Man From the Alamo].” He’d been an actor. And that’s what started us. All you had to do was read one of his scripts. Anybody who didn’t like Burt Kennedy’s writing was crazy. The best scene I’ve ever directed in my life, I directed word for word from his script, and that’s when Lee Marvin and Walter Reed and Gail Russell and Randy are in the covered wagon. Marvin says “You know, a funny thing, I knew a big tall good lookin’ fellow once,” and he starts making love to Gail Russell. That was great writing.

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“Seven Men from Now” – A Cinema Masterpiece

The following essay, adapted from a review published in Queen Anne News (Seattle), appears in the new anthology from the National Society of Film Critics, The B List, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson (Da Capo Press).

The making of Seven Men from Now was a modest enterprise. John Wayne’s old Batjac production company had a B-movie arm in addition to the main unit, which set up A-class vehicles for producer-star Wayne, and Seven Men From Now, which clocks in at a second-feature length of just under an hour and 20 minutes, was produced under its auspices for release by Warner Bros.

Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"
Randolph Scott in "Seven Men From Now"

The screenwriter, Burt Kennedy, was a newcomer who’d been scribbling for radio; the director, Budd Boetticher, was a colorful fellow who’d started as a bullfighter in Mexico, made some trim B movies in the ’40s—and one distinctive, highly personal film, The Bullfighter and the Lady (produced by Wayne, as it happens) in 1950—and then reverted to only slightly more upscale Bs later in the decade. At the time Seven Men from Now went into production, Wayne was busy giving his finest performance ever in John Ford’s Western The Searchers, so the leading role fell to Randolph Scott, a fading star who’d been working in mostly unremarkable Westerns since the mid-’40s.

No one at Batjac or at Warners was expecting more from Seven Men from Now than reasonable profitability. Yet the three men’s talents blended uncannily, producing the best movie by far ever to sport the Batjac label. It’s not just a terrific Western but a cinema masterpiece—an ironical, beautifully spare bit of storytelling that became the ideal showcase for Scott’s sandy reticence.

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Budd Boetticher: An Introduction

When Oscar “Budd” Boetticher, the last of the old Hollywood two-fisted directors, died on November 27, 2001, his passing was barely noted. This old-fashioned studio pro with an independent streak, a colorful history (including a turn as a bullfighter in Mexico), and a career of some 35 features, had been largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated film scholars and western buffs. His work was poorly represented on VHS at the height of that format and, as of October 2008, only four of his over forty features were on DVD. Has any other celebrated American director ever been so poorly served by home video?

The Films of Budd Boetticher, a handsome box set of five defining films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, goes a long way to correcting that neglect. In anticipation of the November 4 release of the DVD set, we recall the career and celebrate the films of Budd Boetticher.

Budd Boetticher stumbled into the movies in the fluky way so many of the two-fisted directors of the silent days landed in the director’s chair, but with a high society twist only Hollywood could have written. Born Oscar Boetticher Jr., the sports-mad kid from a wealthy family planned a career in athletics until he saw his first bullfight in Mexico City and stayed to learn the sport, under the tutelage of two of the finest and most respected matadors in Mexico. He wound up teaching Tyrone Power how to look good in the ring for Rouben Mamoulian’s 1941 remake of Blood and Sand and worked his way up the ladder, learning his craft on the job: production assistant, second assistant director, first assistant director, then cutting his teeth on a string of B movies for Columbia until he broke away from the mire of low budget quickies with his own script. The Boetticher we know as Budd was born with The Bullfighter and the Lady, inspired by his own adventures as a young torero in Mexico (though certainly embellished for the screen), and filled with a reverence for the tradition of torero and a love of the Mexican culture.

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“Videodrome” – Long Live the New Flesh

Just a few years into the 21st century, Olivier Assayas wrote in The Village Voice: “Cronenberg’s visionary Videodrome is the most important film of this generation. Time has only reinforced its audacity.” It’s been 25 years since David Cronenberg’s first masterpiece drilled its mutant images into the minds of unsuspecting audiences, and Videodrome is as contemporary and relevant as ever.

"Videodrome" - love you television
"Videodrome" - a slave to the signal

You can trace David Cronenberg’s meditations on technology, disease, addiction, and mutation in the body human all the way back to his earliest shorts (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and features (Shivers and Rabid). Like George Romero before him, Cronenberg’s earliest films brought horror out of the past and into modern life, breaking taboos and barriers of good taste along the way. He makes his ideas physical and visceral, in a way that you can see and almost feel. It only becomes sharper and more resonant with his remake of The Fly, where he charts the transformation in gooey detail that looks like some diseased attack on the human body (it’s been called a metaphor for AIDS) and eXistenZ, a virtual reality game made flesh, where the line between fantasy and reality doesn’t so much blur as dissolve and overpowering artificial stimulus comes back to effect physical reality.

Even his most recent films explore the same ideas, only instead of some outside agent, he focuses on the way violence and emotion play upon our minds and our bodies. In Spider, the human mind creates a reality for its main character because the truth of his actions are too much to handle: psychosis as a kind of evolutionary fail safe, and this reality created from within is as real to him as the physical world. In A History of Violence, the past that the hero Tom wants to ignore and deny, his repressed history of violence, emerges like a dormant virus when he and his family are under threat. And it emerges without thought — it’s pure instinct, like a hardwired reflex kicked into action with the surge of adrenaline. An essential part of Cronenberg’s genius is making his concepts physical, visceral, alive. It’s what makes his ideas so powerful.

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Together again for the first time: “Exorcist” prequel shows the franchise past its expiration date

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

As long as I can remember, I’ve loved horror movies. Growing up in a family and a small town that buried all the bad stuff under silence, politeness and euphemism, I took guilty pleasure in stories about monsters getting loose in the dark, scaring all the pillars of community to death. Scared me, too, but deep down, I confess I was primally tickled when vampires, blobs, giant bugs, werewolves and aliens broke all the rules. What delight when some long-faced mayor/military officer/scientist/minister, confronted by nightmare, had to eat his platitudes!

The Beginning"?
Father Merinn facing his demons in "Exorcist: The Beginning"?

But even if her Peter Pan’s one of the beautiful and damned Lost Boys (1987), Wendy must grow up. And growing up means learning how few movie-monsters wear anything like the real face of evil. That’s because the most toxic spillage of evil, as Hannah Arendt tellingly observed, is often everyday, slow, banal, gray — so humdrum it’s the rule, not the exception. How can a movie express such an unremarked blight?

Exorcist: The Beginning reminds one, with a vengeance, that most mainstream films don’t tackle Arendt’s brand of evil — and the kind they do take on is generally silly, phantasms born of infantile imaginations. By their very nature, movies aim to make moral-ethical states visible, shaping the inner journey into palpable adventure. That’s especially true of American films, designed primarily for entertainment rather than epiphany.

Horrorshows like this prequel to 1973’s genuinely scary The Exorcist have become ever more literal and physical, dominated by a Grand Guignol fascination with the myriad ways the human body can be mutilated.

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Why Is This Film Called “Birth”?: Investigating Jonathan Glazer’s Mystery of the Heart

[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 23/01/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]

We aimed to make something robust in which every question leads to another. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t believe in reincarnation; I don’t think I could do a film about it if I did. I was more interested in the idea of eternal love. I wanted to make a mystery, the mystery of the heart.

– Jonathan Glazer

You know you’re seeing something special from the very beginning.

In what you soon understand to be a prologue, but for now you take at face value, you hear the words “OK.” It’s a disembodied voice, a lecturer or an interview subject, apparently, but there’s no image, just a dark screen, so you don’t know who’s talking or why. “OK,” says the voice, “let me say this …” Potent words for the opening of a film. Maybe a little self-important, but let it go. For now anyway.

The voice goes on:

If I lost my wife and, uh, the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back …’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird. But other than that, no. I’m a man of science. I just don’t believe that mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.

Anything may be possible. But not likely. Class dismissed.

And now you hear music, an insistent repeating flute motif like the sound of a chirping bird echoes the bird-on-the-window metaphor of the lecturer. But these echoes of springtime are betrayed by the image that we at last see: Central Park in the snow, and a bundled, hooded man on his daily run. Bright light, cold air.

Setup 1 is a long following shot of the running man. This is a main title shot if ever there was one, since all we see is this man running in front of us. A good time to run the opening credits, but we don’t get them. Instead, all our attention is directed to the shot. Four dogs dart across the runner’s path. The runner enters a short tunnel and only then does the title appear: Birth.

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Thirteen Landmarks of Italian Horror; or, There’s Always Room for Giallo

A mysterious stranger stalks a lovely young woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera lovingly recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo, a distinctly Italian twist on stalk and kill horror genre, could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo combines a poetic, haunting beauty with grand guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity.

“Black Sunday”

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.

For more on Mario Bava, see my overview/appreciation Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death.

Black Sunday (1960), Mario Bava

Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, spits curses with hellfire as a spiked mask is slowly placed over her face. Suddenly a massive mallet pounds the iron mask and the credits explode in fire. Even in his directorial debut, Mario Bava knew how grab an audience’s attention, and he doesn’t let it go. It’s not really a giallo, but it is the first great Italian horror and the feature debut of the man who would define the giallo over the next decade. Steele only starred a couple of Italian horror films, but her distinctive, unusual beauty seemed to capture something primal in the mix of sex and sadism, innocence and corruption, victim and victimizer. She is terrifyingly lovely in a double role as the vengeful witch burned at the stake and her guileless descendant who unwittingly resurrects her with a drop of blood, and she’s both innocent and devilishly wicked with equal fervor. The moody, macabre, hauntingly beautiful cult classic of cruelty marked the beginning of great talent and the first great work of Italian horror.

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“The Descent”: In the destructive element immerse…

[originally published in Queen Anne News, August 2006]

I was telling my friend about The Descent, one of the most authentically terrifying horror movies I’ve seen in years, when she called a halt to my rhapsodizing about its scare tactics. She wasn’t kidding. Movie stuff that comes oozing up from the darkness behind the brain seriously freaks her out. So how come I’ve loved hair-raisers since forever? What’s in it for me?

Maybe it’s connected with going about as far as you can go into really bad places (we’re not talking dreck flicks here, but genre classics) … and coming back alive. A film like this breathtaking British stunner works like a nightmare trip, the darkside equivalent of a vision quest. Vicariously surviving The Descent into hell confirms your power over death. The best horror movies teach us that, rephrasing Dylan Thomas, we do not have to go gentle into that bad night.

"The Descent" - into the caves
"The Descent" - into the caves

The Descent opens with instant kinesis: a trio of women, high on risk and adrenaline, fighting their way down extreme rapids, while a man and a little girl watch from a nearby bluff. Director Neil Marshall clues you in from the film’s exhilarating get-go that his tough, resourceful heroines are larger than wives and mothers. Forget the sidelines: these women game hard, testing their physical skill and courage to the limit.

Scant time, after leaving the river, to chill out before what feels like a scene of riskless calm is horrendously shattered. You’ve hardly settled down from mastering those wild rapids before getting body-slammed by a terrible tragedy out of the blue. The movie nails down — in your nerve-endings — the difference between courting danger in extreme sports and the way everyday killing violence comes unbidden, without warning.

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Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death

Mario Bava turns 100 this week. In tribute, Parallax View is pulling up this feature from the archives.

[This is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published on Greencine, April 3, 2007]

Italian poster for "Black Sunday"
Italian poster for”Black Sunday”

Mario Bava is a horror original.

A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door.

Bava was born into the movies in 1914. Italy was at the height of its epic historical spectacles and his father, Eugenio Bava, was one of Italy’s top cameramen; he shot, among others film, the lavish blockbuster Quo Vadis. Mario trained as a painter but soon followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of Italy’s most in-demand cameramen (Bava disdained the term “cinematographer”) and special effects artists, often working uncredited. He’s said to have made unsigned directorial contributions to such productions as Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1955) with Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (1959) with Steve Reeves, and Raoul Walsh’s Estherand the King (1960) with Joan Collins.

Legend has it that Italian genre veteran Riccardo Freda “pushed” his friend Bava into the director’s chair by abandoning not one but two projects for his frequent cinematographer to finish (it’s hard to verify the real reason that Freda left the projects, but it makes for a good enough story to justify printing the legend). Based on his uncredited direction completing Freda’s I Vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, plus his imaginative work as cinematographer, special effects artist, and assistant director on Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining muscleman movies Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Bava was offered a shot a directing a project of his choosing. He chose Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” and made his official directoral debut, at age 46, on The Mask of Satan, renamed Black Sunday for the U.S. release.

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Keeping Score – Scary Music for Scary Movies

In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a list of 13 movie scores that stand out as landmarks in the honorable tradition of writing music designed to scare the pants off the movie viewer.

13. Jaws, John Williams, 1975.

Any responsible list of scary movie music has to acknowledge the achievement of John Williams and Stephen Spielberg in making the accelerating repetition of a simple two-note motif into a fundamental component of pop-culture history. By most definitions, Jaws is more a suspense thriller than a horror film, but it gave us one of the most heart-stopping, breath-holding, unnerving musical ideas in the history of cinema.

Jerry Goldsmith: "The Omen"

12. The Omen, Jerry Goldsmith, 1976.

Serial Oscar nominee Goldsmith won his only Academy Award for The Omen’s powerful choral/orchestral score. Simultaneously savage and quasi-religious, it broods, threatens, menaces, and finally stages an all-out assault on the listener.

11. King Kong, Max Steiner, 1933.

For a movie about a big monster, Steiner created a big score, filled with suspense, romance, power, and fear. Steiner repeated—and arguably exceeded—the achievement in 1935’s She. Both scores appreciate the importance of quiet, lush, romantic moods in setting up counterpoint for real musical terror; but for epic scale and innovation, Steiner’s exotic and aggressive music for King Kong set the standard. From the very beginning, the eight-note descending principal motif captures the power of Kong while predicting his fall. Steiner runs this motif through an astonishing chain of variations—romantic, horrific, even the ceremonial dance of an unspecified tribe that exists solely in the realm of imagination. Peter Jackson reprised Steiner’s music to score the Broadway stage appearance of the captured Kong in his recent remake—the only thing in that film that truly honors the original.

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Carousels, Circuses And Cathedrals: The Film Art of Max Ophuls

[Originally written in November, 2002 for the “Luminous Psyche” film series “The Films of Max Ophuls”]

“But where would people like us get to if we couldn’t get carried away?” –Max Ophuls

When Max Ophuls died in 1957, his friend and collaborator Peter Ustinov (Le Plaisir‘s narrator, Lola Montès‘s Ringmaster) described the director as “a watchmaker intent on making the smallest watch in the world and then, with a sudden flash of perversity, putting it up on a cathedral.” One takes issue with Ustinov’s somewhat condescending adjective–“smallest”–but the metaphorical connection of watch and cathedral is wonderfully resonant as a key to Ophuls’s movie metaphysics. As a film artist, Ophuls can be compared to God as watchmaker, designer of exquisite cinematic mechanisms–set in motion in fin-de-siècle Vienna or contemporary La-La-land or timeless Paree. That irresistible motion makes Ophuls’s world go round, carries his actors–and his audience–away, traps or transforms all those who dance to his Mozartian music.

"Lola Montes" Falling from social grace to center ring
"Lola Montes" - Falling from social grace to the center ring

Circles that count time, watches suggest the little round of human life, the turning of the earth, the unreeling of a film. Timepieces are significant plot devices in Ophuls’s films, which often revolve around star-crossed lovers–and repeated variations on the question “What time is it?” signal ever-pressing mortality, as well as the worldly duties that so regularly interrupt or end transcendent affairs and assignations. A friend once described Ophuls’s elegant cinematic excursions as “tracking eternity”; it is the director’s famously long, complex, beautiful tracking shots—and the power of his lovers’ emotions—that carry them (and the willing viewer) out of time. In The Earrings of Madame de…, Ophuls’s masterpiece, that inexorable, voluptuous camera movement constitutes the film, a life, the transformation of a beautiful woman from ornament to essence. Madame de…’s pilgrimage ends in an empty cathedral, architecture which rises up to eternity.

Liebelei (1932), La Signora di tutti (1934), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953), and Lola Montes (1955) all contain Ophulsian heroines who are ensnared and sustained by seductive images of earthly pleasures, or fall from the glittering merry-go-round of the world…into eternity. Falling in love, plunging from social grace, flinging themselves out windows, jumping from the heights of circus tents—these courageous or despairing acts are leaps of faith, leaps into the void. By an act of pure will, Ophulsian women often seek to transmogrify the unsatisfying stuff of ordinary life into art. Their obsession–or talent–drives them to sanctify or aestheticize their experiences, mining metaphysical significance from the mundane. But sometimes the machine breaks down, and beauty is ground up in perpetual motion—like Gaby Doriot’s movie-star portrait endlessly reproduced on the drum of Il Signora di tutti’s printing press.

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