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Arthur J. Ornitz

Five Sleazy Pieces

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled The Only Good Indian and coauthored by Ralph and Natasha Friars. Its specific sins against the English language and any recognizable form of ratiocination are catalogued elsewhere in this issue. I mention this pseudo-scholarly study of the American Indian’s martyrdom by cinematic slings and arrows only because it exemplifies a particularly cavalier attitude towards product and consumer alike, an attitude rampant not only in selfrighteous critical tracts like the Friars’, but also in an increasing number of current films. People like the Friars don’t have to make sense (either stylistically or thematically), don’t have to work at selling their shoddy wares even on the level of persuasive polemic. Why? Because their readers are pre-sold, previously primed to ingest that which already constipates their thinking. Not, admittedly, a new process—this recycling of pap that effects no change, no growth, only a mild to offensive case of intellectual flatulence. Still, recent movies like The Last of Sheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, Harry in Your Pocket, and The Legend of Hell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.

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The Last of Sheila cashes in on the audience’s putative taste for the games (rich) people play, not to mention psychic stripping, a spectacle many in our group-therapy-ridden society have come to relish in and for itself with or without any therapeutic payoff for the individual involved. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who, with close friend Tony Perkins, wrote Sheila‘s screenplay—is reputedly hooked on the puzzle-game habit himself. Perhaps as a result, the film retains the half-thought-out, initially grabby but ultimately flabby quality of a neat idea cooked up by old buddies with shared interests over late-night scotches.

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Review: Serpico

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

A recent article in The New York Times described a seminar on Serpico that convened at the serious-sounding New School for Social Research. Tony Roberts was there, and the cop he portrayed in the film was there, and not surprisingly they had vastly differing notions regarding the authenticity and worth of Sidney Lumet’s latest movie. Sgt. David Durk (on whom the well-meaning but generally impotent character of Bob Blair—Serpico’s politicking ally—was based) criticized Serpico for catering to the already rampant contempt for and distrust of police, and warned his liberal audience that “the message … that no decent man can stand up against our system” would produce just the kind of disillusioned impotence that precludes involvement, ethical behavior—that is, the whole Serpico shtick. In response, Roberts allowed as how he didn’t want “to get into legal, moralistic, philosophic questions … they’re too complex for me.” This, right after he had just waxed melancholy about Sidney Lumet, “an honest artist, greatly concerned with truth,” whose creative integrity had been done in by “the money men.”

What a tangled web of doublethink! For indeed Serpico cries a considerable caveat to anyone contemplating bucking the system. And Roberts implies that even the creator of the film played Serpico to movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis and lost. But somehow Durk’s demurs are put off as abstract, hopelessly complex. I mean, what’s a cop’s integrity count against that of an Artist? What kind of film would Lumet, creatively unfettered, have produced? Is the implication here that “the money men” now consider cop-contempt and ethical despair eminently saleable commodities at the box office? I mention this tragicomedy of the absurd because it seems a fitting backdrop to the schizoid quality of Serpico itself. Whatever “great truth” Lumet was after and missed, whatever producer de Laurentiis did to thwart the Artist and rake in the shekels, is really irrelevant. Serpico doesn’t really come off as a triumph of nihilism, a relentless indictment of police corruption, the “system,” and all that. It’s ultimately just what’s happening while Al Pacino runs away with the show.

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Review: Death Wish

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

The gyroscopic suspension of Michael Winner has been reported on fairly regularly within these pages, as films like Chato’s Land, The Mechanic, Scorpio, The Stone Killer, and the unquickied Lawman have kept his name and work lucratively in the public eye; it would be hard to find a week in the past several years during which at least one Winner film wasn’t on a screen somewhere in the greater Seattle area, if only as a second feature at some drive-in. It is perhaps to the point that he also made, during that same period, a film supposing what sort of events might have led up to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (The Nightcomers); the endpoint known after a fashion, the film became the sort of closed system that his other recent works integrally describe. Most of the films operate on the principle of a war of attrition: usually there is a large cast of characters to work down from until all or all but one of the dramatis personae have been exterminated; as many roles as possible are filled with hungry has-beens whose former eminence lends them a ready identifiability and enables the viewer to keep track. Structurally, the films are depressingly nihilistic, and Winner’s soulless cleverness—a camera almost incessantly in motion, shots that dovetail to little purpose save the fact of dovetailing, bizarre, immediately graspable caricatures in place of characterizations—somehow renders them the more chilling, because slickly pointless. A sense of (fully earned) self-loathing emanates from these products, which nevertheless are highly salable in their overall gruesomeness.

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Review: Law and Disorder

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Ivan Passer must have taken another look at his countryman Milos Forman’s American picture, Taking Off, before addressing himself to Law and Disorder, for the new film contains several notable echoes of its predecessor: a community-enlightenment seminar in which an obviously neurotic psychologist advises the women how to defend themselves against potential rapists (cf. the pot-smoking in Taking Off); a wife’s comically grotesque attempts to turn on a jaded husband (cf. Lynn Carlin’s pixilated drunk dance); the complaint of the protagonist, a beleaguered parent with a troublesome daughter, that “normal girls run away at 16—she stays around to annoy us” (a nod to T.O.‘s central premise). There any resemblance to Forman’s adroitly judged satire and Passer’s own small masterpiece, Intimate Lighting ends. Passer’s account of several middleaged middle-American males’ endeavors to set their world a-right by forming an auxiliary police force to patrol the neighborhood attempts to limn the frustration of those who straddle the caste line between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but he lacks any feeling for the specifically American experience. Actors like Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine are difficult to control at the best of times, and Passer, who steers his way so surely through the klutzy exoticism of blowsy Czech housewives and passed-over Czech Lotharios, apparently has no notion when satirical caricature gives way to gross overplaying.

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