The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 8

8 May, 2015 (09:28) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

“Where do you go from here? Obviously no place but down. Ekberg has been taking rent-paying jobs ever since Boccaccio ’70, but Tashlin in a sense used her up and Fellini brought her to unimagined heights, on a billboard on Mount Olympus from which there was no turning back. Or coming down, although she literally does step down from her billboard pedestal. Tashlin created a “star,” Fellini a myth.” Mark Rappaport, in an essay written to expand on his latest short film, tracks the rise and apotheosis of a sex goddess as Anita Ekberg becomes a comically exaggerated joke on celebrity under Tashlin and an erotically exaggerated icon for Fellini.

‘Boccaccio 70′

“This was the hidden fault line in all classic slapstick. Get a great comedian working at the height of his powers and relatively unfettered creative freedom and you could get a masterpiece. But the added value of great collaborators was always going to be limited. There was a wellspring of talent in Hollywood—they were pouring into the city by the bus load, and some of them were geniuses. The working method and style of the great slapstick auteurs had little use for these talents, whose skills were being wasted. Or, put another way, Slapstick 2.0 didn’t have much room for women.” David Kalat traces the cracks that would end slapstick and lead to screwball—and in his telling it’s not about sound—focusing on a scene in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp that required nothing more from Joan Crawford than the back of her head.

“This was the America in which Welles was functioning. If we interpret his life strictly in terms of his frustrated relations with the film industry, we lose touch with what he actually cared about, and what he meant to his contemporaries.” An excerpt from F. X. Feeney’s Orson Welles biography examines the political activism that had more to do with his ostracism and self-imposed exile than any wastrel behavior with studio funds, placing particular emphasis on the appalling case of Isaac Woodward, Jr.

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Mr. Arkadin

7 May, 2015 (17:11) | by Richard T. Jameson, Essays, Orson Welles | By: Richard T. Jameson

[This is a program note written for “The Cinema of Orson Welles,” the Autumn 1971 film series of the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts, and distributed at the November 9, 1971, showing of the film.]

Mr. Arkadin is another of Welles’s European productions. The soundtrack is consequently erratic, and this, plus the fact that the storyline is so crowded with events and characters, suggests the advisability of offering a brief outline of the scenario for reference either before or after viewing:

Orson Welles as Gregori Arkadin

*Pre-title sequence. Typed words: “A certain great and powerful king said to a poet, ‘What can I give you of all that I have?’ He wisely replied, ‘Anything, sir … except your secret.'” A plane is seen sweeping over a barren landscape. The director’s voice tells us that this pilotless craft was sighted one Christmas morning, that investigation of the incident “reached into the highest circles,” and that the attendant scandal very nearly toppled a government. “This motion picture is a fictionalized reconstruction of the events leading up to the murder, and to the appearance, last Christmas morning, of the empty plane.”

*The titles. The main title is formed out of newspaper cuttings. The cast is introduced in order of appearance, each seen in a subsequent shot from the film. Various other shots are seen now, to be repeated in context later.

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Film Review: ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

7 May, 2015 (05:19) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Carey Mulligan

Along with a great novelist’s assumed ability to peer into the human soul and all that, Thomas Hardy added two key obsessions: land and time. Hardy knew the soil of his English countryside, knew the trees and animals, and the way a footpath connects farms and destinies. He also knew how the turning of the seasons affected people, and how those same footpaths resonated with the steps of ancestors near and distant.

Thomas Vinterberg’s new version of Far From the Madding Crowd gets just about all of that wrong. And immediately, too: The film throws away the great moment when Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan)—having assured herself that no one could be watching—leans back on her horse in an unladylike manner, a gesture surreptitiously witnessed by salt-of-the-earth farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian rising star Matthias Schoenaerts). If a movie can’t understand how that gesture shapes the futures of these characters, it won’t get much else right.

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Film Review: ‘Welcome to Me’

7 May, 2015 (05:16) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Kristen Wiig

Beyond the valley of black comedy is a place where laughter and horror mingle freely. Here roams the original British version of The Office and the amazing Scorsese/De Niro King of Comedy (still one of Scorsese’s best, despite its low profile). It clicks only intermittently, but Welcome to Me is an attempt to inhabit this territory. I didn’t actually laugh much during this cringe-inducing film, but I was often impressed by its willingness to be awkward.

That it succeeds as often as it does is largely due to Kristen Wiig, whose ability to slip from broad humor to quietly devastating insight is already well documented.

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Film Review: ‘Lambert & Stamp’

7 May, 2015 (05:02) | by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Film Reviews, Musicals | By: Sean Axmaker

Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert

You could be forgiven for assuming that Lambert and Stamp are some forgotten folk-rock duo of the Peter & Gordon variety. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were part of London’s ’60s rock scene, though not as performers but as managers, promoters, producers, and mentors. They helped transform a mod-favorite club band called The High Numbers into The Who, nurtured the songwriting talents of Pete Townsend, and supported the band until its breakthrough.

They are a colorful pair with an interesting story. Lambert, the posh, Oxford-educated son of a classical-music conductor, and Stamp, a working-class bloke and younger brother of Terence Stamp, were aspiring filmmakers when they met as assistants at Shepperton Studios.

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Film Review: ‘Tangerines’

7 May, 2015 (05:00) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Lembit Ulfsak

Small in scale and antiwar in subject, Tangerines is the kind of story that almost always gets called a fable. Most such projects can get gooey about how we’re really all brothers under the skin, and this one is no exception—it was one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, after all. But even if this theme is low-hanging fruit, the movie is so well made and acted that it quietly wins the day.

Tangerines officially represented Estonia at the Oscars, but it is set in another part of the world: Abkhazia, a fragment of the old Soviet Union.

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The Trial

6 May, 2015 (19:02) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Orson Welles | By: Sean Axmaker

“[I]t’s my own picture, unspoiled in the cutting or anything else…. The producers were heroic and got it made, and there isn’t anything I had to compromise—except no sets, and I was happy with the other solution, as it turned out, even though I was kind of in love with all the work I’d done. Still, I was happy enough to scuttle it, as I always am.”
–Orson Welles on The Trial, from This is Orson Welles

Anthony Perkins in ‘The Trial’

Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1959) is now celebrated as a masterpiece, but the version released in 1959 was not the film that Welles had intended and it was largely dismissed as a glorified B-movie. It had been for Welles one last attempt to make films inside the studio system and he brought the film in on time and on budget. Yet Universal thought that his labyrinthine nightmare of a crime movie was too dark and confusing for audiences and took the editing from his hands. Welles’ famous fifty-eight-page memo (which became the basis of a 1998 revision undertaken by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch) was politic, polite and even supportive of some of the changes made by Universal’s editor as it made the case for editing refinements. Welles played by the rules right to the end, attempting to work with the producers rather than fight them, but it became clear that Hollywood simply did not want the kinds of films that Welles made and he left for Europe. Never again did he work with the budgets or the resources of a major studio production. That was his trade-off for creative control.

The Trial (1963) was not Welles’ first project after Touch of Evil—he started shooting Don Quixote in Mexico and Spain and made a series of documentaries for Spanish TV—but it was the first film he completed after leaving Hollywood.

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Orson Welles goes ‘Around the World’

6 May, 2015 (08:26) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Orson Welles, Television | By: Editor

‘Around the World with Orson Welles’

When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.

It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.

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Videophiled: Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr. Turner’

5 May, 2015 (18:28) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

Mr. Turner (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD) – “When I look in a mirror, I see a gargoyle.” J.M.W. Turner, as created in the Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner and incarnated by Timothy Spall, is not what we imagine for a grand British artist. Burly, rough-hewn, with speech punctuated by grunts and snorts, he’s a man from working class stock who has acquired the necessary social decorum to interact in professional society but reverts to an almost primitive state back home. He’s abandoned his wife and daughters with little more than an allowance and turns to his maid for sexual release, but he also adores his father (Paul Jesson), is fascinated by natural science, has an almost spiritual connection to the landscapes he paints, and finds solace living in anonymity in a rented room overlooking the sea in a port town.

This is only Leigh’s third film based on historical events and set in the past—everything else in his career has been contemporary—but like his other films it is built with his cast’s commitment to research and investment in their characters. The screenplay, which follows 25 years of Turner’s life, doesn’t follow any familiar storytelling structure. It’s episodic and Leigh never worries about identifying time or place as it moves through his life. You have to work to follow the narrative but Leigh’s interest isn’t on what he did when. It’s all about how and why he paints. Not that the answers are readily forthcoming; Turner is a fascinating conundrum right to the end. Leigh is more concerned with his nature, the details of his labor (and there is a true work ethic and complete commitment to his painting), the social culture around him, even the business of painting in 19th century England. It’s an immersion into his life and it is rich.

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Schooled by Orson Welles: Roberto Perpignani

5 May, 2015 (08:32) | by Sean Axmaker, Interviews, Orson Welles | By: Sean Axmaker

Anthony Perkins in ‘The Trial’

Roberto Perpignani quite auspiciously made his official debut as professional film editor on Bernardo Bertolucci‘s feature debut Before the Revolution (1964). He went on to work with Bertolucci on The Spider’s Stratagem (1970) and The Last Tango in Paris (1972) and became the longtime editor for Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, a collaboration that begin in 1972 with St. Michael Had a Rooster. Perpignani won the David di Donatello Award (the Italian equivalent of the Oscar) for film editing three times, twice for Taviani films—The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) and Caesar Must Die (2012)—and in between for the international hit Il Postino (1994). But it was Orson Welles that started his career as a film editor, first on In the Land of Don Quixote, a series of short documentaries that Welles made for Spanish TV, and then as one of his primary assistant editors on The Trial. Perpignani cut the film at a makeshift editing bay in the abandoned train station Gare d’Orsay in Paris, where Welles was shooting in another section of the station, and worked on the film practically up to its debut in the final weeks of December, 1962.

I had the great honor of meeting Perpignani when he came to Seattle to introduce a screening of Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem at the Seattle Art Museum, a 1999 event co-sponsored by the University of Washington. He graciously agreed to sit for an interview the next day. “I’m sorry my English is terrible today,” he remarked. “Worse than usual.” Perhaps, but it was certainly better than my Italian, and he had help translating some phrases and words from a professor of Italian Studies at University of Washington, who hosted the interview at his home. It’s with some embarrassment that I confess that in the years since I lost that man’s name, for he was essential in making this interview happen.

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The Magnificent Ambersons

4 May, 2015 (04:02) | by Robert Horton, Essays, Orson Welles | By: Robert Horton

[Originally published on The Crop Duster]

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

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Aftereffects: Joshua Oppenheimer’s Shorts

3 May, 2015 (07:28) | by Sean Axmaker, Documentary, Essays | By: Sean Axmaker

‘The Globalisation Tapes’

“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I do think, though, that the purpose of art is to force us to confront the most painful and important aspects of who we are.”
—Joshua Oppenheimer, interviewed by Jessica Kiang at Indiewire

American-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer is a 1997 Marshall Scholar, a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award (the same year that Alison Bechdel was so honored), and director of Academy Award nominated documentary The Act of Killing (2012). From his earliest films, he’s experimented with new forms with which to explore big themes and historical forces, and he’s explored issues of representation and “truth” inherent in the form in articles and books on the subject of non-fiction and documentary.

“In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present,” he explained at the 2015 Based on a True Story documentary conference. “No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.” It’s the quantum physics of filmmaking: the act of observing changes the behavior of the observed. His solution is to incorporate the tools and the practice of filmmaking into the structure of the film.

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The Orson Welles Bookshelf

2 May, 2015 (09:21) | Books, by Sean Axmaker, Orson Welles | By: Sean Axmaker

There are more published books on Orson Welles than on any other film director past or present.

The above statement is based on my own anecdotal, far-from-exhaustive and thoroughly unverified research, mind you and yes, it’s possible that Alfred Hitchcock tops him (if so it’s a close call), but why let the details get in the way of a dramatic statement? Welles certainly didn’t. Maybe that’s one reason for so many books—there’s so much myth behind the man.

Orson Welles, reading

There’s also so much career behind him. Welles made his name in theater and radio as a director, writer, producer and actor before coming to Hollywood, and he had a fascination with complex, contradictory characters who shaped their public images. His debut feature was built on the struggle to find the “key” insight to explain the character and motivation of a public figure and discovering a multiplicity of facets. Welles himself spun fictions around his own story, creating an aura of myth around the “boy wonder” genius that was taken for fact by many critics, while Hollywood (through gossip columnists and trade papers) created its own story: the “failed” genius who defied the system and was brought low by his own hubris. For most of his life, writers were content to print the legend(s), but there was is grist for multiple takes on his life and art in separating fact from fiction alone, never mind challenging clichés and preconceptions that have settled into common knowledge.

Now I should confess that I am somewhat obsessive when it comes to Welles. I own more than fifty books—biographies, studies, monographs, scripts, essay collections—on Welles, and that’s far from a complete accounting. For the vast majority of folks interested in delving deeper into the life and career of Welles, however, one book will suffice, at least as a starting point. The question is where to start?

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of May 1

1 May, 2015 (09:50) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

‘Nadja à Paris’

“When I attempt to describe my years in Paris, no one believes me, I can tell. It was too Hollywood-dream perfect. Here is Nadja coming out of the student restaurant, minding her own business, and who should appear next but Eric Rohmer who stops her (“Why you of all people?” they ask) and within minutes he wants to make a film about her life.” Before she died last year Nadja Tesich, the subject of Rohmer’s 1964 documentary Nadja à Paris, collaborated with Lucy McKeon on a lovely account of that time, that city, and the director who seemed to give her free rein even while crafting his own “portrait” of the young student.

“One of the grim proverbs of noir is that you can’t escape yourself. There are no fresh starts, no second chances. But noir also demonstrates the instability of identity, the way character can be corrupted, and stories about facial transformations harbor a nebulous fear that there is in the end no fixed self. If noir is pessimistic about the possibility of change, it is at the same time haunted by fear of change—fear of looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger.” Imogen Smith examines a collection of noirish films that play on the theme of plastic surgery, from Joan Crawford’s improbable transformation in A Woman’s Face to Seconds’s promise of a new identity to come with your new face. (“There is never a moment in the movie when this seems like a good idea.”)

That Night’s Wife invokes the social consciousness that marked not only many of Ozu’s early works but most serious Japanese films of the thirties. Like the country’s art and literature, its cinema of this era often spoke to the plight of people living in economic conditions that were partly a result of the worldwide Great Depression. […] That Night’s Wife may concern a crime, but it’s above all a work of empathy.” As were the other two crime dramas from Criterion’s new collection of early Ozu, Michael Koresky shows.

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Film Review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

30 April, 2015 (05:28) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews, Science Fiction | By: Robert Horton

Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow

The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.

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