American Honey, the first movie set in the States by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), finds the director working with some fairly ludicrous self-imposed hindrances: a largely untrained cast, Shia LaBeouf at his most methody-bedraggled, and a nearly three-hour running time. That she makes these all meld together beautifully feels like some kind of weird alchemy, really.
The provocation begins with the title, a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: Nate Parker’s Sundance smash takes its name from a famous film released 101 years ago. Not just any film, but a cinematic titan of its era:The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s mammoth Civil War film sold more tickets than any other movie, inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and caused enormous controversy as soon as it was released. The film is a synthesis of Griffith’s profound cinematic eloquence and some appallingly racist material, the latter having frequently dominated the conversation about Birth. Parker is reclaiming the title and adjusting film history. Fair enough, but if you’re going to reach that big, you’d better deliver.
Film critics and Seattle film mavens Richard T. Jameson, Bruce Reid, and Robert Horton discuss the new films Hell or High Water, Sully, and Disorder, and they pay tribute to late comic actor, screenwriter, director and novelist Gene Wilder (1933-2016), who passed away August.
These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend (note: there will be no September edition due to scheduling issues). The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.
Keep up with the discussion at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.
Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.
Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.
[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
The American cinema owes the French cinema—which is to say French critics and audiences as well as French filmmakers—an enormous debt. And so do any American cinephiles whose cataracted vision began to clear only after Gallic enthusiasm pointed the way to a discovery of our national cinematic treasures. Why, the film noir, one of the richest veins in our movie mines, bears a French moniker; and French cinéastes have emulated that particular tradition time and again, from the commercial likes of Borsalino to the more personal genre work of the recently deceased Jean-Pierre Melville to the radically stylized, self-aware poetry of Godard’s Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le fou. The progression syntactically implied there is stylistic rather than chronological: Borsalino, an enjoyable piece of period fluff concocted by Jacques Deray, postdates the others. It would be nice to say that Deray’s first American-made film added new dimensions to the genre; that a foreign filmmaker practiced in shooting French-based derivations of our native genre might reveal to us unsuspected strains of exoticism gleaming out of the domestic bedrock. But no.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Don Siegel he’s not, but in this sequel to Dirty Harry Ted Post has directed his first middlin’-good feature film. A Gunsmoke–Have Gun, Will Travel regular in the half-hour heyday of those series, Post has done less-than-promising work for the big screen: Hang ‘Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment. Someone—not necessarily Post—has been attentive to those critics of Harry who cried “Fascism!” and has programmatically set out to do a film with Clint Eastwood/Harry Callahan against some avowed fascists—or perhaps we must say superfascists since Harry himself still casually avows “There’s nothing wrong with shooting—just so the right people get shot.” And indeed, Eastwood’s own integrity as an actor and as a mythic figure remains untarnished: Magnum Force is the first non-Leone, non-Siegel, non-Eastwood picture in which he manifests some real style instead of sleepwalking into place to pose for the one-sheets.
The Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Krzysztof Kieslowski is best known for his lush, plush art-house Three Colors trilogy, a celebration of grand emotions from beautiful people, but the The Dekalog (1989), an ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV, is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are not Sunday School fables illustrating simplistic moral lessons—the connections to the individual Commandments are not always obvious—but powerful, profound stories of love and loss, faith and fear. Each hour long drama, which Kieslowski wrote with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, stands on its own as a fully conceived film
“He tails Madeleine quite efficiently, to be sure, but he also displays a casual awareness of his surroundings. He pauses to look at a gravestone or two in Mission Dolores. He bends over to examine a painting (Allegories of the Arts: Architecture, by Charles-Andre van Loo) in the gallery. When he sets off to the McKittrick Hotel, he turns his head to look behind in one swift move, although his prey is well ahead of him. What on earth is he looking at? What can be more interesting than Madeleine? Many things, one might respond—and correctly. Scottie is falling under Madeleine’s spell, but he still retains control over his attention, where it might linger, and where retreat. She remains at the center of his vision, but also occasionally recedes. All is well. It is in the post-Madeleine phase that things go wrong.” Paroma Chatterjee, sticking up for the poor, defenseless necklace thrust into the role of plot point, finds in Vertigo more than a hint that the titular affliction is, for Scottie and Judy’s well-being, very much a good thing, and Scottie’s “cure” by the end cause mostly for regret.
At Criterion, the wages of sin, Euro arthouse and Hollywood camp (both intentional and otherwise). Paul Coates shows how Kieslowski’s weaning himself from documentary informed the content and means of production of Dekalog. (“[After] the brief visit of a philatelist living in another apartment, Zofia’s translator, El?bieta, says, “‘Interesting block’; Zofia’s response is ‘Like any other. Everyone has a story to tell, and so on.’ ‘And so on’ abbreviates the script’s ‘and so on and so on and so on . . .’ Ten films cannot possibly tell all the stories the block contains, as its multiple windows remind one continually. Even one story may not necessarily be taken in all at once—so we see Magda viewing her own life from another angle at the end of A Short Film About Love.”) While Glenn Kenney does the honors for both Valley of the Dolls and its out-of-the-blue, up-from-the-underground nonsequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. (“A longtime fan of the comic strip Li’l Abner, [Meyer] was making live-action cartoons, but it is clear that he didn’t feel intellectually superior to his own product. Ebert, while possessing some of the qualities of a Chicago wise guy at the time, was also a young and eager Hollywood outsider. The latter’s account of the creation of the movie describes an attitude of anything-goes exuberance, not calculated mean-spiritedness.”)
French Cinema Now kicks off a series of French language films from France and Canada at SIFF Cinema Uptown with on Thursday, September 29 with opening night feature Lost in Paris from filmmaking team Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon. Among the highlights: the romantic comedy Two Friends from actor/director Louis Garrel, Don’t Tell Me the Boy was Mad from Robert Guediguian and set in 1970s Paris, the documentary Reset which takes viewers behind the scenes at the Opéra National de Paris, and the drama After Love with Be?re?nice Bejo and Ce?dric Kahn as a married couple sticking through a failing marriage for their kids. The series plays through Thursday, October 6. The complete schedule and ticket and festival pass information is here.
The 19th Local Sightings Film Festival screens its final films at NWFF on Friday, September 30, including a new restoration of Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994), and on Saturday it presents the first-ever Sundance Institute Artist Services workshop in Seattle. The day-long event for filmmakers begins at 10am at NWFF and features panel discussions and presentations. Details here.
Mink Stole presents a midnight screening of the new restoration of John Waters’ trash classic Multiple Maniacs (1970) at SIFF Egyptian on Friday, September 30. The event is hosted by Peaches Christ and features a special performance by RainbowGore Cake.
A new restoration of Geoff Murphy’s apocalyptic The Quiet Earth (1985), the first science fiction movie from New Zealand, plays through the week at Grand Illusion.
On Wednesday, October 5, NWFF celebrates American Archives Month with a selection of rarely-seen shorts from archives around the city of Seattle. Also at NWFF this week: the short films program Memory Presents: Program No. 2 from award-winning and emerging filmmakers and Desert Cathedral, a mix of found footage and dramatic thriller, both on Thursday, October 6.
Young Frankenstein (1971) returns to cinemas across the country for a special one-night-only screening on Wednesday, October 5 from Fathom Events. This screening features a live introduction by director Mel Brooks, who co-wrote the film with his star and good friend Gene Wilder. You can find participating theaters in your area here.
This week, Central Cinema goes classic with Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and crowd-pleasing with The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Showtimes here.
Back for another go: The Art of the Story: The Hero’s Journey is a workshop that looks at the power of myth and the hero’s journey in storytelling through Star Wars (1977) and its relationship to Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Conducted by media educator Malory Graham. Sunday, October 2 at SIFF Film Center.
More openings: Cameraperson, a personal documentary from filmmaker Kirsten Johnson and A Man Called Ove (winner of the Golden Space Needle for Best Actor) at SIFF Cinema Uptown
The miracle of Sensurround was uncorked in 1974 as part of the gimmicky release of Earthquake. Universal Pictures wanted to add something extra to the glut of disaster pictures in the marketplace (this was the epoch of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), so Sensurround was born. Theaters added huge speakers, booming bass notes were embedded in the soundtrack, and the ads warned that the effect would be akin to an actual earthquake: “The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.” That sold a lot of tickets, and the walls really did shake. But Sensurround was used on only a handful of films before more sophisticated audio systems came into use.
Today, technical advancements make it possible for theaters to rumble and quake with deafening authority—many movie experiences are the equivalent of getting stuck in traffic in front of a car with its thumping subwoofers tuned to the “bleed” setting. Such a film is Deepwater Horizon, a throwback to the ’70s-era disaster flick. The cheesy come-on of Sensurround is nowhere to be seen here; the filmmakers have said the movie is meant as a sober tribute to the 11 workers killed in the oil-rig disaster in 2010. But Deepwater Horizon follows the Earthquake formula, and its sound effects spare nothing in pursuit of tooth-rattling.
The Neon Demon (Broadgreen, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” We first meet Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old girl from Middle America looking to leverage her youth and innocent beauty into a modeling career in Los Angeles, made up as a glamorous victim of a decadent world. Sprawled out in designer clothes across an expensive couch with fake blood slathered across her neck and dripping down her arm, she could be shooting the ad for her own fate in the big bad city.
Nicholas Winding Refn, who wrote and directed his social commentary-as-heady horror film, isn’t big on subtlety. Elle Fanning is an enormously talented young actress who has become shorthand casting for innocence, youth, and authenticity, and that serves Refn’s purposes perfectly. She does indeed have that “deer in the headlights” look, as her agent says in one of the on-the-nose lines that fills the script, and her fresh look, not yet jaded by LA decadence, makes her the next big thing in a culture where the supermodels du jour age out of their prime at 20.
[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
The Garland–Elkins production of A Doll’s House is one of two screen adaptations of Ibsen’s play to be released this year, presumably to cash in on the women’s liberation market. Joseph Losey’s film, which will reach Seattle by way of the video screen, is an adaptation for the screen in every sense of the term. Garland’s effort, on the other hand, is more a film recording of Elkins’s Broadway production of the play, starring Elkins’s wife Claire Bloom. The exasperating thing about it is that it can’t make up its mind whether to be a filmed play or a movie. The stifling atmosphere of confinement, especially important to a play in which the seen world onstage represents a world in which the protagonist is trapped, is retained for about the first third of the film, Garland keeping all the action within the walls of Torvald Helmer’s house. Thereafter, we get exterior shots, first glimpsed through windows and finally photographed by cameras in the street. Garland yields to the temptation to cut away to Krogstad’s shabby flat, and yields again; and before the film is half over the mystery of the outside world and the sense of confinement in the inner world are both lost. Presumably the increasingly frequent glimpses of a world beyond the Helmer household are intended to move us smoothly toward Nora’s departure from her husband’s house and her entry into that outer world. But this is a violation of the play itself, on two counts. First, Nora’s break from Torvald and her children is sudden, not gradual. And second, her departure is based not upon a growing awareness of the other world but a stifling disenchantment with the inner world, which, in the play, is the only world she sees and moves in.
[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]
Stanley Kubrick has staked out as his special territory the study of the diverse and frequently perverse liaisons between man and machine. In films like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick obsessively examines all the accoutrements of a technological environment in which sophisticated hardware continually threatens to become autonomous, even humanized, while man is recreated in the image not of an anthropomorphic deity but of deus ex machina. Michael Crichton (author of The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, director of Extreme Closeup) is equally preoccupied with scientific paraphernalia and what it portends for the future of mankind. But whereas Kubrick is an artist who makes the machinery serve the myth, Crichton displays only a facile cleverness, a slick talent for coming up with a grabby idea upon which to hang the full weight of a novel or a film. The best contemporary sci-fi writers have turned true novelists in their concern with characterization and style, as well as the need to present in-depth analyses of the ethical, moral, even metaphysical fallout resulting from current technological advances. Crichton’s work has more in common with the oldfashioned sci-fi adventure/suspense thriller genre. For instance, The Terminal Man begins as potentially “modern” science fiction: a man given to extreme violence during epileptic seizures is “cured” by the implantation of a miniature computer in his brain; this cybernetic therapy is complicated by his increasingly psychotic belief that machines are taking control of humans. But Crichton dodges the rich possibilities of this material and ultimately settles for mere chase melodrama. Still, The Terminal Man is as close as he’s come to real achievement in the genre of serious sci-fi.
Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD) – The legacy of African-American filmmaking—specifically films made by and for African-American audiences before Hollywood integrated its casts and gave leading roles to African-American actors—is largely unknown to even passionate films buffs, in part because the films were rarely seen by white audiences in their day, and in part because so few of the films had been preserved with the same dedication given to the maverick films of Hollywood. This landmark box set is the first serious effort devoted to collecting and preserving feature films and shorts produced between 1915 and 1946 for black audiences, most of them made by African-American filmmakers. The scope of the set embraces drama, music, adventure, comedy, and documentary.
Independent director/producer Oscar Micheaux, the most successful and prolific black filmmaker of his day, directly confronted race and racism in such movies as Within Our Gates (1920), which took up the cause of education while broaching such taboo subjects as miscegenation and lynching, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), his response to Birth of a Nation, and Birthright (1938). The set includes nine features and a short from Micheaux, including his most famous film Body and Soul (1925) starring Paul Robeson playing brothers (one good and the other a con man in a priest’s collar) in his film debut.
“Every country inflects noir with its own accent, adapts the form to its own climate. In American noir, people are undone by ambition and desire, convinced that they can have what they want if they grab hard enough and run fast enough. In French films, people often succumb instead to exhaustion, melancholy, nihilism: most poetic realist films contain some version of the line “living is hard,” or “life’s a bitch.”” Imogen Sarah Smith reminds us the French didn’t only name film noir, they contributed mightily to it; not least by gracing us with one of the genre’s iconic actors, Jean Gabin. Also at Criterion, Geoffrey O’Brien praises Cat People as a film of more than just some memorable scenes, but one steeped in the uncanny. (“Fans and commentators have sifted every shot and every situation of this seventy-three-minute feature, pondering each line of dialogue and taking note of each editing gimmick and trick of lighting, speculating on the implications of every archetypal motif and psychosexual frisson. Yet a fundamental mysteriousness remains, a slippery unwillingness to submit to final explanation. Cat People’s most famous gesture—keeping the object of dread concealed in the shadows, and trusting to the human impulse to people the dark with the most unspeakable fears—is only the most blatant of the many ways in which the film leaves spaces deliberately blank. It presents us with a series of unforgettable moments and obliges us to imagine connections among them.”)
“William Dean Howells famously remarked, ‘What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ In his version of The Natural, Levinson made that a good thing—and ultimately, Malamud agreed with him. This son of Jewish immigrants and serial portraitist of social outsiders frequently got lumped with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as “Jewish novelists.” According to his daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, when the author left the movie theater after seeing The Natural, he turned to his wife and said, ‘Now I’m an American writer.’” How Levinson and his collaborators pulled that off is why Carrie Rickey feels The Natural is only now getting its critical due, being dismissed at the time as an unacceptable softening of a great novel.