In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.
Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
After nearly being consigned to oblivion by its would-be distributors, I.F. Stone’s Weekly was withdrawn by its creator, 26-year-old Jerry Bruck, and rereleased for a small engagement in Washington, D.C. Its popularity led to a New York showing, and then a San Francisco run which broke all records for the exhibiting house. Bruck and his modest, 62-minute, black-and-white documentary have unpredictably become the sensation of the year. How to explain the phenomenon? Certainly not in terms of cinematic achievement, for there are no particularly new or inventive techniques employed in the film. In fact, Bruck frequently indulges in some rather worn ones (an Amherst ceremony honoring Stone is intercut with a Marine Corps parade honoring Lyndon Johnson and news footage of napalm bombings in Vietnam, while the Amherst choir sings on), and uses them sometimes unfairly, as when he loads the dice in Stone’s favor with news film of Ron Ziegler and Tom Jarriel playing tennis under the watchful eye of Tricia Nixon Cox while Stone’s voice describes how mainstream journalists play ball with the White House. Not that the device doesn’t work. It’s good for a jolt—which is precisely why it shouldn’t have been used. Jarriel is one of the least collusive of Washington pressmen, and to resort to a misleading visual pun to indict him cheapens an otherwise solid film.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Joyce at 34, the half-hour personal film accompanying I.F. Stone’s Weekly at the Movie House, is touted as a feminist film. Believe me, the cause has had better exponents. This little piece of autobiography concerns the 34-year-old filmmaker’s decision to have both a baby and a career, and chronicles the first months of her life as a working mother. The film presents arguments for and against having both job and child in the form of ill-thought-out “soul-searching” and selfrighteous emotionalism insulting to the intelligent viewer. The conclusion is right, but the approach is both shabby and wrong. There is a lot more to feminism than a gaggle of self-serving yentas talking over coffee about raising children and finding jobs during the depression.
The explosion of Japanese gangster films in the 1960s was the great genre freakout of the era, and the rest of the world missed out on it for decades. While films by Kurosawa andKobayashi and Naruse played film festivals and art cinemas, and those by Oshima andImamura drove the Japanese New Wave, the domestic industry was turning out samurai movies and erotic dramas—which spawned the even more disreputable “pink films”—and colorful, high-energy gangster films. Where the samurai movie as a type had some cachet and international exposure, thanks to a decades-long history and a sense of being “the Japanese western,” the gangster movie was modern, urban, and immediate—a pop-culture response to economic anxiety and youth culture. At first these films failed to break out of the Asian market, either as arthouse curiosities or commercial genre artifacts. They were practically unknown in the west until the stateside “rediscovery” of Seijun Suzuki in the 1990s led fans to further exploration in the genre.
Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of the nation’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. They were shot quickly and cheaply, cast from a stock company of actors who would become genre icons (Jo Shishido, Testsuya Watari, Akira Kobayashi), and driven by the energy and anxiety and nihilism of the “sun tribe” genre of youth-gone-wild movies—Japan’s answer to the teen-rebel drama—that also proliferated in sixties. No one at Nikkatsu topped the insanely prolific Seijun Suzuki.
A couple of months back I reviewed two Film Noir Foundation restorations of orphaned films—that is, films that were produced independently, outside of the studio system, by entities that no longer existed. With no one left to protect and preserve them, they fell into the public domain and the original elements were lost or neglected. Here are two more film noir rescues and restorations, these by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation.
Try and Get Me! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released under the title The Sound of Fury, is a 1950 take on the lynch-mob dramas of the thirties dosed with post-war anxiety and sociopathic anger. Frank Lovejoy, one of the everyman actors who took the lead in low-budget crime and action movies of the 1940s and 1950s as the straightforward moral center, stars as Howard Tyler, an out-of-work husband and father in a small California town, desperate to find any job to get his family out of debt (they owe the grocer and the landlord). Killing time over a beer in a bowling alley bar, he meets snazzy-dressing, glib-talking Jerry (Lloyd Bridges), a preening narcissist who flexes his muscles and admires himself in mirrors as he dresses up, slaps on cologne, and parades in front of Lovejoy as if fishing for compliments. He knows a guy, he says, who needs a guy for a job. He’s the guy, it turns out, and the job is wheelman on a gas station robbery. It’s the first step in a lucrative but doomed partnership with a sociopathic peacock who has plans for a big score.
“As soon as she filed suit, Jack Warner wrote to every studio in town to remind them that she was still effectively under contract. In court the studio didn’t hesitate to fight dirty, insinuating that an affair was the real reason the actress had turned down one movie. The Warner attorneys, however, hadn’t reckoned on the de Havilland sang-froid. She had spent years on set with Michael Curtiz, one of the most notorious yellers in the business; these guys were nothing. So when one lawyer thundered, ‘Is it not true, Miss de Havilland, that on the morning of January 16, you wantonly refused to show up for work on Stage 8?’ ‘Certainly not,’ came the reply in that musical de Havilland voice. ‘I declined.’” In this week that has seen cinema lose so much let’s begin with a tribute to one of its enduring survivors, Olivia de Havilland, whose 100th birthday is aptly celebrated by Farran Smith Nehme.
“But even character does not exist in isolation. It is formed by an environment. And the immediate environment for noir is the world of capitalism. Of course, the majority of American films made during this period were set in capitalist societies, but noir is notable for stripping its milieu of any features not directly related to the circulation of money.” Staying at Sight & Sound, Brad Stevens limns some of the narrative tropes of film noir as played out in that quintessential example, Out of the Past.
Framing Pictures is back and thus month the discussion promises to engage the legacies of Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Cimino (who both passed away within the past week), the life and career of Olivia De Havilland (who turned 100 last week), and more. Discussion begins on Friday, July 8 at 7pm at the screening room of Scarecrow Video on 5030 Roosevelt Way. More details at the official Facebook page.
Czech That Film Festival plays over the weekend at SIFF Film Center this weekend, opening on Friday, July 8 with The Way Out (2014), winner of seven Czech Lion Awards. It returns on Sunday to close the festival, and in between six features screen. Complete schedule here.
Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker and film subject Steven Wise will attend the opening night screening (Friday, July 8) of the documentary Unlocking the Cage, about the efforts of animal rights lawyer Steven Wise to challenge the legal definition of animals as “things” with no legal rights. Opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
The Seattle Art Museum summer film series Cary Grant for President continues with My Favorite Wife (1940), co-starring Irene Dunne and Gail Patrick. It screens on Thursday, July 14 at 7:30pm at Plestcheeff Auditorium and is shown on 35mm. Individual tickets are available on the day of show on a first come, first served basis. Details here.
The supernatural thriller The Wailing from South Korea opens for a week run at SIFF Film Center.
Few filmmakers had a more direct line to the viewer’s gag reflex than the late Lucio Fulci, who spent his entire career devising new ways to show people being taken apart. A Cat in the Brain (1990) may not be Fulci’s defining work—that most likely remains the Lovecraftian brain muncher The Beyond (1981)—but it may well be his most interesting. An ersatz 8½ with chain saws, it takes a deeply ambivalent look at the director’s films and methods, without skimping on any of the grody stuff that made him famous. Warning: The title is not just a metaphor.
One way you can spot a strong new movie director is by listening to what she does with the soundtrack—not the music, although that’s part of it, but the whole sonic enchilada. I like a lot of things about The Fits, and the first thing that got me was the way it sounds. As the film evokes one Cincinnati girl’s bumpy journey into the mysteries of adolescence, the soundtrack ripples with densely layered noise: the slap of feet on a hardwood floor during dance practice, the rhythmic meeting of boxing gloves in the workout room, the specific way a song echoes in a big empty school gym. The noises are realistic enough, but when they’re piled atop each other, it all sounds like a dream.
The Fits is written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer, who developed the story with editor Saela Davis and producer Lisa Kjerulff. But “story” isn’t the right word, because The Fits is more an immersion into one girl’s point of view as she tries to figure out her identity during a peculiar time at her school.
[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), September 4, 1985]
Year of the Dragon is supposed to be one of those movies people either love or hate. The picture’s been out several weeks now and, while no one seems quite to love it, the hate vote has been pouring in. Spokespersons for the Asian American community have charged director Michael Cimino with grotesquely distorting life in New York’s Chinatown and fostering a sociopolitically retrograde, “Yellow Peril” image of Orientals, American and otherwise; last week, a $100 million class-action suit on behalf of Asian Americans was filed against Cimino, producer Dino de Laurentiis, and the distributor, MGM/UA. Cimino-baiters have restyled the multimillion-dollar production “Dragon’s Gate” in bloodthirsty reference to the director’s studio-busting 1981 misfire Heaven’s Gate. And viewers of every stripe have taken an intense dislike to the movie’s nominal hero, a brutal, obnoxious, foulmouthed, racist, sexist New York cop whose obsession with toppling the new “Godfather” of the Chinese mafia takes a murderous toll among his own intimates.
These reactions are easy to understand. Moreover, the film has a raft of flaws, some of them glaring, that decisively disqualify it as “a good movie.” The script (by Cimino and Oliver Stone) yammers and hammers away at its points rather than, for the most part, allowing them to emerge from the flow of the action with force and complexity. In structural terms, the scenario loses touch with several characters planted early on, then yanks them back out of limbo just in time to fulfill some hasty dramatic function in the closing reels.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Claude Lelouch’s latest film begins with the last five minutes or so of A Manand aWoman, the credits of HappyNewYear appearing over them. As Anouk and Jean-Louis go into their spin and freezeframe clinch at the railway station, we cut to a closeup of several thoroughly disgusted thugs offering the Gallic version of the razzberry; the camera whips back, a fatuous administrative type beams that “this film has been my way of wishing you all Happy New Year,” and we see that it has just been shown to a group of convicts. To one who spent several months sitting on the other side of a lobby curtain feeling “Lub-a-dub” turn his brain to jelly, the prison context of the joke is delightfully apt.
99 River Street (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), released in 1953, is one of most underappreciated film noirs of the 1950s and arguably the greatest film by Phil Karlson, the toughest film noir director, and certainly his most beautifully brutal, a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag. Karlson developed the film with John Payne, the former star of musicals and light romantic comedies who remade himself as a tough guy star. They had worked together in the lean, mean, twisty cult film noir Kansas City Confidential (1952), a film that inspired Quentin Tarantino, and hatched the story for this follow-up together.
The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blow and come up with a new plan. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.
Spelunking through the films that have inspired Quentin Tarantino is no easy task, with gallons of Z-grade dross surrounding the few genuine exploitation gems. And 1973’s Lady Snowblood, thankfully, falls firmly in the latter category. Stylized to the nth degree, it somehow manages to be both ridiculously over the top and serenely beautiful, often in the very same shot.
The new issue of Offscreen is dedicated to so-called “quiet” science-fiction. Robert Fuoco takes a close look at two startling moments from The Thing and an exhaustive look at a third—the blood test scene that never fails to freak even after multiple viewings—to show how carefully Carpenter sets up and sometimes subverts the expectations of what the director himself cheekily dismisses as “cheap tricks.” (“Rather than adding new elements to blatantly distract us, Carpenter and the film’s editor Todd Ramsay gradually remove old ones. After all, we rarely think about what we aren’t seeing, yet this growing absence of shots works just as well to guide our attention in the direction the film wants.”) Daniel Garrett considers isolation, survival, and scientific skepticism—and science-fiction as a genre—as portrayed in Z for Zachariah and The Martian. (“The striking thing about [these films] is that they clear away most of the attributes of civilization, forcing lone individuals to sustain themselves using basic intellectual rudiments and resolute spirit.”) And Randolph Jordan dissects the precise use of sound in Stalker, and how it separates and unites the worlds inside and outside the Zone. (“Tarkovsky’s use of ambiguous offscreen sound often serves to call into question that which is seen on the screen; in Stalker, the reverse is often true: by using non-ambiguous sounds attached to sources we see on the screen, he calls into question everything that lies outside of the frame.”)
“Tarzan’s exercise in nomenclature [i.e., “Me Tarzan—you Jane”] has long been used to characterize the traditional model of sexual relations, the dominant man and the subservient woman, and, in the process, to mischaracterize what must be one of Hollywood’s happiest portraits of the satisfactions to be found in convention. The six Tarzan and Jane movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan produced by MGM between 1932, when the series began with Tarzan the Ape Man, and 1942, when it concluded happily with Tarzan’s New York Adventure, add up to an anatomy of a creature even rarer than those with whom Tarzan and Jane share their African escarpment: a marriage that works.” Charles Taylor sings the praises of a series that always had more erotic frisson and comic awareness than its camp-minded cultists cared to admit.
At Film Comment, Margaret Barton-Fumo commends the eclecticism of Ryuichi Sakamoto, finding surprising yet thematically appropriate ways to soundtrack his films’ themes. (“A representative sampling of Sakamoto deep in the groove of his career comes with two films he scored for Brian De Palma, Snake Eyes (98) and Femme Fatale (02)…. Poignant and neo-classical, Sakamoto’s scores for these two films stage a fine counterpoint to the director’s unrelenting cynicism.”) And Graham Fuller finds the dedicated Brechtian always peering out from inside Alan Clarke’s searing social portraits. (“Sympathetic to social misfits and family casualties (as is Loach), youths especially, and antagonistic to patriarchal institutions (the Church, governments, the courts, prisons, schools, hospitals, multinationals), he was the telly auteur as roving anarchist—not an ideologue, however, but a director who approached the cinematic space representing Britain as a hectic ontological battleground.”)
R. Emmet Sweeney is celebrating summer by going through the films of the most seasonably appropriate director, Rohmer. He kicks off with La Collectionneuse (“Daniel and Adrien have reached a state of decadence and rot, ready to concede the end of the ’60s dream. They wear ratty nightgowns while Haydée is grasping for the future.”) and Claire’s Knee (“La Collectionneuse depicts the curdling of male desire outside of Saint-Tropez, while the male protagonist of Claire’s Knee is trying to trigger his lust in an attempt to overcome it.”). Abbey Bender has pretty much the same idea, offering a gallery of the definitive Rohmer fashion, the female bathing suit. (“Rohmer swimsuits often embrace imperfection. The orange bikini bottom in La Collectioneuse bunches slightly, and the bikini that Haydée (Haydée Politoff) wears in the film’s opening rides up and twists in the back. In the world of Rohmer such imperfections add a down-to-earth allure.”) Via David Hudson.
“So it’s finished. A structure to house one man and the greatest treasure of all time.” “And a structure to last for all time.” “Only history will tell.” History’s been less than kind to one of Hawks’s oddest, darkest structures, Land of the Pharaohs, though Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, without denying its occasional corniness (how could you), finds it “a perfect example of a movie organized in images, some so overwhelming that they manage to absorb its flaws.”
“In one part [of the script], Jiang described a chase through a mine with the characters riding mine carts. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. ‘He was arguing with me adamantly, like the thing he had written was Holy Scripture,’ Frakes recalls. ‘I said, “Your story doesn’t make any sense. People will see it’s a grab bag of all these movies.”’ Jiang didn’t debate; instead, Frakes says, he took Frakes down to the parking garage to show off his Lamborghini.” Mitch Moxley reports on one of the stranger movie shoots in recent years, the mermaid adventure Empires of the Deep, written and produced by a Hong Kong real estate mogul hoping to break into movies and bridge east and west, cycling through four directors (with others like Irvin Kershner courted for the project but never hired), plagued by onset cultural conflicts and funds drying up that have one of the stars sneaking off location and out of the country with the help of the American embassy, and still unreleased half-a-dozen years after having wrapped. Via Longform.
“The problem with period films is that they just look pretty. Well, that’s not interesting. I want it to look as though these people live in these spaces and wear these clothes. When we did the Emily Dickinson film in Belgium, there’s a shot where she turns around to wave goodbye to her friend. You see the edge of her dress, and it’s slightly frayed. That’s wonderful, because it’s her best dress. It’s got to be true to the period, but it’s got to have texture.” Terence Davies talks about his old familiars—nostalgia, repression, suffering, forgiveness—as filtered through Sunset Song and his upcoming Emily Dickinson film with Steve Erickson. And throws in some interesting anecdotes about budgeting to boot.
“Then we realized that we were getting into an obsessive behavior. But we enjoyed the nuance in each take. That made it very difficult to edit the film. I was working on the film shot by shot, scene by scene, character by character. I was working on the levels of hostility and civilized behavior, the mixture of those. Today, I heard an artist on NPR say that he was working some place, and was causing a bit of a disturbance. The interviewer asked, ‘Did they allow that?’ Because he was [obstructing] the exit or something. And the artist said, ‘Well, I was invited to leave.’ In effect, that’s King of Comedy. ‘They threw you out!’ ‘No, I was invited to leave.’” Martin Scorsese discusses The King of Comedy, and his unhappy realization how much he identified with Rupert Pupkin, with Simon Abrams.
“I am so shy, and, at the same time, I kind of expose myself literally to thousands of people. I don’t really understand why I do that. I need to go through therapy!” Discussing Burton, Bertolucci, and Bond, Eva Green explains to Lynn Hirschberg the paradox underlining her career even the actor can’t understand: how such a retiring, even shy, person in real life is so free being naked, emotionally and literally, in front of the camera. Via Movie City News.
Author and journalist Michael Herr wrote the memoir Dispatches, praised by many as the greatest book about the Vietnam War. On the strength of that, he wrote the narration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Full Metal Jacket (1987), which earned an Academy Award nomination. He later wrote personal biography of the director: Kubrick, published in 2000. Herr died at the age of 76. Bruce Weber at The New York Times.
Italian actor Bud Spencer, born Carlo Pedersoli, was a beloved star of Italian genre films. He came to the movies from sports—he was a swimmer who competed in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic games and a champion water polo player—and he shot to fame with a series of films he made with Terence Hill, beginning with God Forvives… I Don’t (1969) and taking off with Ace High (19680 and They Call Me Trinity (1970). They acted together in 18 films, from westerns to crime films to straight-out comedies, and Spencer made dozens of other films without Hill. When his film career slowed down, he turned to television in the 1980s, starring in the series Big Man, Extralarge, and Recipe For Crime. Nick Vivarelli for Variety.
Experimental filmmaker Peter Hutton made his first films in 1971 and continued making his films, mostly portraits of cities and landscapes in the U.S. and around the world, for more than four decades while teaching filmmaking at various colleges and working as a professional cinematographer on the documentaries of Ken Burns (a former student) among others. He passed away at the age of 71. J. Hoberman for The New York Times.
Grand Illusion revives the Japanese martial arts revenge classics Lady Snowblood (1973) and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974) for a week. Dates and showtimes here.
SIFF presents “An Evening with Steve De Jarnatt,” with the director presenting newly-remastered versions of his films Cherry 2000 (1988) and Miracle Mile (1989), on Wednesday, July 6 at SIFF Film Center.
Bringing Up Baby (1938), the screwball classic starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and directed by Howard Hawks, kicks off the Seattle Art Museum summer film series Cary Grant for President. It screens on Thursday, July 7 at 7:30pm at Plestcheeff Auditorium and is shown on 35mm. Individual tickets are available on the day of show on a first come, first served basis. Details here.
Just after we’ve first seen the Big Friendly Giant—teased in a series of shadowy glimpses as he lurks about a London street at night—he must flee the city and return to Giant Country. We watch this creature, as tall as a small building, as he lopes through town and country, full steam ahead, his long skinny legs galloping across an acre at a time. It’s a thrilling sight. Perhaps many filmmakers could make this moment soar, but when you see it you will know that this particular flourish could come only from Steven Spielberg. The way the distance of the camera allows us to see the BFG from head to gnarly toe, the predawn light barely glimmering on the horizon beyond, the everyday touch of power lines whipping past—everything in this brief shot suggests Spielberg’s talent for amassing details so that they generate giddiness across your eyeballs.
In The BFG, a new Disney production, Spielberg mines Roald Dahl’s 1982 kid-lit classic. It’s the adventure of an orphan girl named Sophie (spunky Ruby Barnhill), plucked from her unhappy orphanage by the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance).