At a time when more and more promising directors are quickly swallowed up by the remorseless blockbuster machine, there’s something admirable about a filmmaker like Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night), who is seemingly content to stay a rung or two down on the respectability ladder and continue refining his chops. The Shallows, Collet-Serra’s new primal screamer, may not be his best work—that honor still falls to the wonderfully sick Orphan—but its single-minded devotion to getting viewers to grip their armrests is really something to see. Clocking in at a lean and mean 86 minutes, it takes its deliberately simple premise and comes close to knocking the damn cover off of it.
“And that’s when I came up with the flying utensils.” A seemingly innocuous phrase, right? If the speaker is a Disney animator, you might be visualizing a charming sequence of movie magic. But no—the speaker is Brian De Palma, so this out-of-the-blue comment can only lead to something perverse. His fans will know that the notorious director is talking about Piper Laurie’s death scene in Carrie, his 1976 horror hit. On the page, the telekinetic Carrie gives her mother a heart attack. Speaking to us in the documentary about him, De Palma rolls his eyes over how uncinematic this would be. Why have a character simply clutch her chest and fall over when you could send an arsenal of flying cutlery toward her, crucifying the evil witch in her own contaminated house?
This is one of dozens of stories in De Palma, a feature-length interview in which the filmmaker, 75, tells anecdotes, copiously decorated with clips from all his films. The tidbit about Carrie is typical of the documentary at its best: It’s a colorful story, but it also underscores De Palma’s keen, sometimes lurid grasp of what cinema is. That scene in Carrie may be over the top, but it is cinematically alive in a way that De Palma’s better-behaved colleagues rarely touch.
The problem with writing about Jeff Goldblum’s speech patterns is that the things that make them so distinctive—the spoken italics, the stutter-step changes in pitch, the sense that he’s parodying his own line readings, sometimes in the middle of said line—are almost impossible to replicate in print. Consider this valiant effort to transcribe Goldblum’s Goldblumisms, taken from Independence Day: Crucible, a novel that serves as a prequel to Independence Day: Resurgence.
“I’m not—clearly not—the leader type. Evil counselor, I can do, you know, the guy plotting in the shadows, Cardinal Richelieu and so forth—”
Almost. Almost, but no.
[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]
Sugarland is a small, undistinguished Texas burg not far from the Mexican border. The Sugarland Express is one commandeered highway patrol car and a caravan of half a dozen other h.p. cars, then a few dozen local police cars, then a couple Louisiana highway patrol cars, then a few hundred civilian cars, trucks, campers, and at least one Houston-based TV news van, all bound for the aforesaid Sugarland, Riding in the lead car are an escaped convict, his wife (also recently a con), and one relatively new state policeman whose dialogue sounds like a mélange of the Highway Patrol rule book, the safe-driving code, and Reader’s Digest. The convict may be even more hapless than his prisoner: he broke out—walked out—of the minimum-security prerelease farm from which he’d have been freed in another month anyway, persuaded by his wife that swift action is needed in order to rescue their infant son from a foster home. Before his journey had fairly begun he found himself guilty of grand theft auto, speeding, resisting arrest, stealing a policeman’s gun, and kidnapping—all within about eight minutes. Now it promises to become a very bad scene, what with Clovis (the con) garbling the syntax of all those threats that are supposed to keep his cop prisoner in line, Lou Jean (the wife) impetuously shoving a riot gun at police cars that draw too near, and half the local constables and deerslaying rednecks in the state trying to be the agent of retribution for these desperados.
Paul Cox’s paean to the power of love opens on a boy and a girl biking down a country path, so magnetized by their young lust they must hold hands even as they ride. She’s blooming, dressed in richest blue and red; as they kiss hungrily on a bridge, she anchors her hand on a metal floodgate wheel. The camera lowers, to show that the stream’s current can’t be stemmed. It flows swiftly onward, its movement—echoed by the accelerating train that soon separates them—wiping away their youth. Forty years, two marriages and several children later, Rose (Julia Blake) and Andreas (Charles Tingwell) reunite and find they’ve fallen in love a second time, not as old, fading folk but as continuations of the joyful boy and girl they once were. Cox visually makes an eternal Nowness for these four characters, mixing memory and present rediscovery, lovemaking in the woods and in a home filled with the accumulated treasures of a lifetime, ripe and fallen flesh.
[Originally published in The Weekly, November 21, 1984]
Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers begins with a painting and a striptease. In the case of the former (which appears behind the opening credits), the camera eye is at first focused in tight, on the refined profile of a Renaissance nobleman and, to his left, a pale forest of organ pipes. An actual forest is visible in the distance—to be precise, part of a meticulously landscaped park of which the gentleman seems to be taking survey from a balcony. Still inventorying the details of the painting—patterns of shrubs and trees, the statue of a satyr—the camera drifts rightward and then starts to withdraw slowly, so that we begin to perceive the composition entire. The last element we become aware of is a naked woman, alabaster and robust, a curving landscape unto herself and the real focus of the man’s transfixed (we now recognize) gaze.
The striptease which almost immediately follows recapitulates, but also revises, the dynamics of this aesthetic movement. This time we open on a closeup of a woman, a saucy working-class gamine (Alyson Best) who proceeds to remove article after article of her clothing, to the “Love Duet” from Lucia di Lammermoor, for the delectation of a well-to-do client. The camera pulls back slowly so that eventually we are watching from somewhere behind this seated gentleman’s left shoulder. As with the painting, the shot contains a great deal more information. The setting for the striptease, a room in the man’s house, is as meticulously and symbolically composed as the environment of the painting. In fact, the young woman stands in front of another painting, modern, abstract, a complex of curved and thrusting shapes evocative of human genitalia, male and female at once. The space surrounding her is replete with statuary, objets d’art—and vegetation. Whereas the painting behind the main title is by definition frozen in time, a snapshot of erotic potentiality, Cox’s “action painting” of another erotic moment not only suggests the Renaissance painting become movie, but also indexes the particular sensibility of Charles Bremer (Norman Kaye), the watcher/artist seated at right who has willed the moment into being.
“Before I knew anything about Polanski, Repulsion was already important to me as a film that represented certain uncomfortable aspects of being female, and learning that its creator is a rapist only served to make it even more emblematic of that experience. Thanks to its context, Repulsion is more than a movie to me; but, as the movie it is, it’s also more than a painful emblem of the horror of being female.” Elsie Moore kicks off her intriguing read on Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”—Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant—addressing “the elephant in the room” not for shock value or to shore up her p.c. cred, but as the first and most troubling of the many paradoxes of identification and subjectivity that give these films their disturbing elusiveness. Staying at Bright Lights, Mervyn Nicholson takes a semiotic tour—riveting and overreaching by turn—through the coincidences that link The 39 Steps, North by North West [sic throughout, though at least the photo captioner gets it right], and Blow-Up. (“The coincidence is the point where what is in front of the screen of appearances coincides with what is inside that screen, behind it, hidden from view. It is the point at which we glimpse what is behind the screen of appearances. A pattern becomes visible that was invisible before: the pattern was in that picture, yet not visible, until now. The coincidence signifies a shift in perception. It is a metaphor for insight. It is insight that dispels an illusion, and it requires a coincidence to make this shift happen.”)
“The portrait is the thing. The flesh-and-blood woman is a complication, a set of contradictions that threaten to overturn the “Lauras” presented or created by her mentor, her lovers, her rivals. But that painting that rests above the mantelpiece, a swoony, romantic provocation—it offers no argument. Its power is not only the movie’s thematic fixation but also played out in the film’s creation, reception, and enduring legacy. The famous still of detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), collapsed in a chair in front of the portrait, half-drunk and mesmerized, is the stand-in for scores of viewers of the film, haunted by its power to reflect back our own dreams and desires—for a past or imagined love, for the return of something lost, for anything at all.” Megan Abbot is terrific on the ferocious subversions of Preminger’s Laura, the way it urges us to fill in the negative space of its presumptive dead heroine with not just necrophilia but “our own longings, our own subversive desires.”
The 2nd annual Twist of Pride Film Festival opens at the Egyptian Theatre on Friday, June 17 with a 20th Anniversary screening of the Seattle-produced Crocodile Tears (1996) followed by the World Premiere of Brides to Be. The festival runs through the weekend. Schedule and tickets here.
The documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, about the making of the legendary shot-for-shot remake of the Steven Spielberg film by a group of schoolkids with a camcorder over the course of seven years, plays through Sunday, June 19 at Northwest Film Forum.
The Best of SIFF returns for revival showings of 12 features (including six award winners) and a program of short films over the next seven days at The Uptown. Complete schedule is below and tickets at the SIFF website. (Festival passes and vouchers are not accepted for these showings.)
When Walker Evans traveled into 1930s America and photographed the people hit hardest by the Depression, he captured the perseverance and dignity of poor folks in the rural South. A similar journey is traced in the new documentary The Other Side, but here perseverance has become hostility and dignity is in shreds. In modern-day West Monroe, Louisiana, the faces are distorted by methamphetamine and alcohol, animated by fear, and given definition by resentment toward an enemy (the black man in the White House, gun-safety advocates—any enemy will do).
For two-thirds of the film’s running time, we follow Mark and Lisa, lovers and lost souls. They cook and sell meth, sometimes tenderly injecting each other. We first see Mark waking up naked along a roadside, the first of the film’s startling images; director Roberto Minervini shoots the scene as though it’s the first morning in an American Eden (the sculpted photography is often in direct counterpoint to the squalid living conditions).
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Ten from Your Show of Shows is not, strictly speaking, a movie. It is a film reproduction of kinescopic records made of live television performances from some 20 years ago. Comedy writer-director Max Liebman and his technicians have done a fine job of suiting the kinescope prints to the giant screen; and, though the end result never looks like a movie, it is eminently watchable.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
Phantom India is subtitled “Reflections on a Journey.” For Louis Malle the film represents not only a journey out of the Western environs of his previous films, but also out of the fiction film into the documentary. Not that he hasn’t been there before: one of his earliest involvements in the cinema was as co-director of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Silent World. But the remove of India as a location and the documentary as a cinematic form may well have—must surely have—had their effect on his subsequent narrative filmmaking. The movie, actually seven 50-minute episodes shaped for presentation on French television, leaves one steeped not only in the spectacle but also something like the sensations of life in India—or, if that be too presumptuous for one who has never gone there, of a special country of the cinematic experience. Malle does his utmost to appreciate his subject wholecloth; a couple of the episodes could handily be abbreviated (the fifth, I think it was, is unprofitably long on the subject of Indian politics), but in the main we can only be grateful for the opportunity to live with some of the scenes and situations long enough to move beyond their surface exoticism into their essence.
The Night Stalker, the fourth feature by Seattle-based filmmaker Megan Griffiths, is skipping theaters almost entirely to premiere on the Lifetime Network and stream on Lifetime Movies, their online subscription service.
That wasn’t always the plan. The film was made as an independent feature with the intention of a theatrical release. “You like the idea of having it on a large screen,” says Griffiths, a Seattle-based filmmaker who grew up in Southern California during the reign of terror of Richard Ramirez. But increasingly audiences are turning to cable, and VOD and streaming services, for their new movies. Many independent films arrive on VOD day-and-date with their theatrical debut.
The Night Stalker made its world debut at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 4 and began a limited theatrical run in Southern California theaters a week later, but for the rest of the country it debuts at 9pm on Sunday, June 12 on the Lifetime Channel and then becomes the newest addition to Lifetime Movies.
Griffiths discusses the trade-off, including the benefits, of releasing her new film to Lifetime, a channel with a great track record for supporting women filmmakers, in the second part of my interview with Megan Griffiths (part one is here).
Sean Axmaker: Tell me about the brief theatrical release for The Night Stalker. Is it only on Southern California?
Megan Griffiths: Yes. It’s opening in Orange County, which is an area where Ramirez had a lot of impact, and there’s a legacy to that there where a lot of people are familiar with him and interested in his story and we figured it made sense to bring the story back there for this limited theatrical release. We always wanted to get some sort of theatrical run but it is getting trickier these days.
SA: You shot this as an independent feature and I assume you always had your eye on a theatrical release.
MG: It’s funny because I always say that there isn’t anybody who got into film to have their movies watched on a phone or an iPad. You like the idea of having it on a large screen where it’s so immersive and you’re in the dark and no one’s on their phones or checking their E-mails during the movie. That’s really the way you want people to watch, where they’re focused and into it, and as soon as you leave the theater all that goes out the window and people watch in this half-registered way. Ideal world scenario is that everybody is riveted, you have their undivided attention, and we’re naturally moving away from that, which is kind of sad. I’ve been going to a lot of screenings at SIFF and marveling at how full every screening has been and how much there is still an audience that at least comes out once a year to fill theaters and watch movies. It doesn’t happen very often. I’ve had those experiences at festivals but I’ve almost never had the experience of a full theater even on an opening weekend for a movie just because of the nature of all the different competition for people’s attention.
Seattle International Film Festival audiences bestowed top Golden Space Needle Awards on Captain Fantastic, Gleason and Spy Time (among others) while juried awards singled out Girl Asleep and the documentary Death by a Thousand Cuts at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival.
Over 420 features, documentaries and short films from more than 85 countries were screened over the 25 days (and the last day is not over as of this writing, mind you) in 15 different venues.
Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic (US), starring festival guest Viggo Mortensen (who was honored with the Festival’s Outstanding Achievement Award in Acting over the final weekend) and shot in part in the state of Washington, took the audience award for Best Film, Javier Ruiz Caldera won the Best Director award for Spy Time (Spain), Best Actor went to Rolf Lassgård for A Man Called Ove (Sweden/Norway), and Best Actress to Vicky Hernandez for Between Sea and Land (Colombia 2016).
Best Documentary was awarded to Gleason (US), directed by Clay Tweel, and Alive & Kicking: The Soccer Grannies of South Africa (USA/South Africa), directed by Lara-Ann de Wet, took home the Best Short Film award. The Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision given to the female director’s film that receives the most votes in public balloting at the Festival, went to The IF Project (USA ), directed by Kathlyn Horan.
New to the competition awards this years is the SIFF Official Competition award, selected from 12 entries making their World, North American, or US premiere at SIFF. Girl Asleep (Australia), the debut feature directed by Rosemary Myers, was honored with the award in its inaugural year.
Also new is the SIFF Ibero-American Competition, for films having their US premiere during the Festival that do not yet have US distribution. The inaugural winner is You’ll Never Be Alone (Chile ), the feature debut from Chilean writer-director Alex Anwandter.
The New Directors Competition winner is Sand Storm (Israel), directed by Elite Zexer; the New American Cinema Competition winner is Middle Man (USA), directed by Ned Crowley; and the Documentary Competition winner is Death By a Thousand Cuts (Dominican Republic/Haiti/USA), directed by Juan Mejia Botero and Jake Kheel.
The Short Film awards went to Killer (USA, directed by Matt Kazman) for live action, These C*cksucking Tears (USA, directed by Dan Taberski) for documentary, and Carlo (Italy, directed by Ago Panini) for animation.
“Never call Griffith quaint, either. If he was quaint at all, he was far-sightedly quaint. The naive excitement of grasping that all this fakery is genuine—meaning the way “How’d they do that?” used to play leapfrog in viewers’ minds with “Wow, they must’ve actually done that”—stayed part of the appeal of Hollywood spectaculars up through the late 1960s.” Starting with Griffith’s Babylon, with stops along the way for Tara, Metropolis, James Bond’s globetrotting, DeMille’s (and Las Vegas’s) Egypt and Harold Lloyd hanging from a skyscraper, Tom Carson takes a witty, oddly moving tour through Hollywood’s many fake worlds, and how they made so much more vivid an impression than the real one. Via David Hudson.
“Its hero might stumble over his words, but he does so in a Jimmy Stewart-like fashion, so full of gee-whiz energy that he sometime forgets himself before zooming off to the next crazy coincidence. The film is full of daytime shots and bright light, of reflections off the cars and planes, checkerboard dance floors, sequined dresses and metal helmets that make up its mise-en-scène. Most crucially, the movie’s spirit is deeply optimistic—it uses its satire not just to poke fun at old-time serial clichés, but to cast a light back on the present, and remind us of what we might have lost in the 53 intervening years.” Now that Marvel movies have proven the economic viability of upbeat superhero flicks, Brian Doan looks back to notorious flop The Rocketeer as a bright charmer ahead of its time.
It’s the final weekend of SIFF and Viggo Mortensen is coming to celebrate it. There are newly added screenings (including a second venue for the closing night film, The Dressmaker), visiting filmmakers, and more. You can survey the highlights at Parallax View’s SIFF overview and the comprehensive SIFF 2016 Guide.
The monthly film discussion “Framing Pictures” reconvenes in the screening room at Scarecrow Video at 7pm on Friday, June 10, with your hosts Robert Horton, Bruce Reid, and Richard T. Jameson. The discussion this month engage Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (coming to SIFF Cinema on June 24, after a single screening at SIFF 2016), Jean Renoir’s first sound feature La Chienne (coming to Criterion next week), and Brian De Palma (a new documentary on the filmmaker opens on June 24, along with a short retrospective), and the floor is open to other timely subjects as well. It’s a free event so come join the discussion. Scarecrow is located in the U-District at 5030 Roosevelt Way N.E.
Silent Movie Mondays returns to the Paramount Theatre on Monday, June 13 (the day after SIFF 2016 closes) with the original Chicago (1927), produced by Cecil B. DeMille (who knew something about sex and showmanship) and starring Phyllis Haver as the cheerfully mercenary Roxie Hart. It’s the first in a three-film series celebrating the Flapper Era. The series continues with The Flapper (1920) with Olive Thomas on June 20 and Why Be Good (1929) with Colleen Moore, and all feature accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer. Doors open at 6pm, films begin at 7pm. More on the Paramount page.
Viktoria, the debut feature from Maya Vitkova, charts three generations of women in the final years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria and the early years of the new government, plays through Sunday, June 12 at NWFF.
Queer Fan Nights continues at NWFF with the Anna Nicole Smith feature To the Limit (1995) on Thursday, June 16 at 8pm (Happy Hour in the lobby at 7pm), co-sponsored by Three Dollar Bill Cinema.
It’s official: Noir City is returning to Seattle in July and it will be throwing its shadows at the Egyptian Theatre (I can’t think of a more appropriate venue in the city). That’s still weeks away, but the schedule is now live and tickets are on sale at SIFF.