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Elizabeth Ashley

Review: Rancho Deluxe

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

I have to be on the side of any film in which Harry Dean Stanton is ordered to “Hoover the Navajos”—i.e., vacuum-clean the Indian rugs. The line could only have been written by Tom McGuane, who’s made a specialty in recent years of writing almost surreally funny sendups of the New West. The rugs belong to Elizabeth Ashley, bored but miraculously goodhumored wife of rancher Clifton James who, fresh out of empires to build, has recently focused his obsessive attention on apprehending a couple of one-steer-at-a-time rustlers. In this effort he is—or is supposed to be—abetted by horsethief–turned–stock detective Slim Pickens, who manifests a disconcerting preference for sitting in front of a TV set in the bunkhouse and ignoring the clues James finds and the theories he cooks up. The hard guys interfering with James’s peace of mind (or providing him with esoteric entertainment—take your pick) are about as dangerous as defanged garter snakes: Jeff Bridges, a poor little rich boy with a spoiled marriage behind him, and Sam Waterston, an Indian whose militancy is of a benignly comic strain and whose blood traces back to Ohio Cornplanters rather than the warriors who once rode the surrounding Big Skyline.

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Review: ‘92 in the Shade’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Anyone seeking evidence that more writers should turn director ought to consider Tom McGuane in quarantine. 92 in the Shade has about as much structure and consistency, not to say appeal, as an ice cream sandwich that has lain in the sun since last weekend. There is scarcely any evidence that someone directed it, although a manneristic and absolutely pointless derivation from some better movie—e.g., a drifting Long Goodbye–like coverage of a jailhouse interview between Peter Fonda and Warren Oates—suggests occasionally that someone thought he was directing. Perhaps the shade of Robert Altman also hangs over the non-readings one strains to make sense of (though I stopped straining before very long); McGuane must have assumed that mumbled, slurred speech—preferably delivered through a mouth full of food and/or drink—has some near-mystical value in the contemporary cinema, else why would he sabotage so much of his own dialogue? But even on that level, the screenplay sounds like someone else’s idea of McGuane dialogue more often than it approaches the real thing (as, delightfully, in Rancho Deluxe).

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Summer of ’89: ‘Vampire’s Kiss’

Beginning with Nosferatu, the vampire has been depicted on film largely as a symbol of pestilence visited upon cities. Just as disease wreaks greatest havoc on places of densest population, the classic vampire sought out the most crowded hunting grounds—the better to find an abundance of prey and the security of anonymity. The traditional movie vampire terrorizes a chosen city, plunging it into despair and either mobilizing it into search-and-destroy retribution, as in most Dracula-based films, or annihilating it utterly, as in Werner Herzog’s fierce reimagining of Nosferatu from 1979, Nosferatu the Vampyre.

But in the summer of 1989, vampirism became instead a symbol of contemporary urban angst. Far from a city in terror, the New York of Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is indifferent to, if not completely unaware of, the menace lurking in its midst. Face it: It takes a lot to faze a New Yorker, especially in the era of Gordon Gecko. In Vampire’s Kiss, no one is afraid of, or even especially impressed with, the vampire Peter Loew has become. Or thinks he’s become.

An upwardly mobile white-collar white male from a privileged background, replete with phony mid-Atlantic accent (listen to him pronounce his surname) and sick to death of being always an agent and never an author, Peter Loew was the perfect vessel for a still-young Nicolas Cage to cap his growing reputation for over-the-top characterizations. For both Cage and Loew, self-induced madness becomes the highest form of creativity.

The character’s not-quite-successfully sublimated discontentment manifests itself early in the film, when we become aware of his propensity for dating (or making moves on) women darker than he. Maybe he’s attracted by their exoticism. Maybe he thinks they’re easier than white girls. Maybe he’s indulging a barely suppressed fascination with the marginalized elements of society. Or maybe it’s simply a reassertion of white-male dominance. Peter’s one of the privileged white guys, adventuring with women of other races, but his “perfect match,” Sharon (Jessica Lundy), and the validating female psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley) who picks her for him, are both white. The whole thing perfectly encapsulates the Reagan-Bush era tension between politically correct liberalism and the neo-conservatism of post-Wall Street greed (for want of a better word).

Rachel (Jennifer Beals) is Peter’s dark angel, almost certainly a figment of his imagination. Jackie (Kasi Lemmons) seems to be his steady date, though he does more to screw up the relationship than to further it, and it eventually ends, leaving Peter to walk a tightwire between the deadly lure of Rachel and the everyday workplace challenges of his office assistant, Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso, downplaying her usual sexy glamour in a genuinely affecting portrayal of one of the city’s many faceless lost). Rachel begins appearing to him after a bat flies into the window of his midtown apartment and either does or doesn’t bite him (we can’t really tell, just as we can’t tell a vampire bat from the ordinary, potentially rabid, kind), bringing his date with Jackie to an unexpected climax. Vampire’s Kiss treats Peter’s vampirism as, among other things, a misogynist fantasy—a vain attempt at securing power—while allowing us to recognize what Peter doesn’t: that Alva, object of his office abuse and harassment, is the one he really wants.

The vampire has ever been the emblem of a dying aristocracy: Dracula and his progeny laid claim to titles and estates in Middle Europe, and the nightmares they visited upon towns in Germany, Britain, and—by proxy—the United States were the nightmares that a privileged and decadent upper class visits upon the poor and the working mercantile class. Vampire’s Kiss offers a new economic analysis of vampirism: the decadence of the capitalist system at the time of its worst excesses (now felt in the new millennium and limned with dark comic effect in The Wolf of Wall Street). Granted, Peter is no stockbroker. Rachel calls him, perhaps tauntingly, “my little literary genius,” and there’s no question that his embrace of vampirism reflects his unfulfilled desire to be the kind of literary luminary he can only work for. He doesn’t see himself in the mirror, even though we do—an epitome of Peter’s lack of self-understanding and his propensity for self-delusion.

At the height of his embrace of vampirism, oblivious to the fact that his fangs are plastic, the gun turned on him fires blanks, and his coffin is an overturned cheap armoire, he urges, “I’m a vampire…I can prove it!” He’s desperately seeking acknowledgment, the validation that his world has denied him. And he finally gets it, not from his psychiatrist, but in a climax reminiscent of that of George Romero’s Martin, which as early as 1977 treated very differently the exploits of a similar contemporary urban vampire (or vampire wannabe).

I don’t know much about Bierman (a “subject for further research,” as Andrew Sarris might have put it), but he had an eye on him, I’ll give him that. His sense of the city at its emptiest times and the unforgiving loneliness of crowds at its fullest, of the sunrise-sunset bookending essential to the vampire film, of the inattention of the workaday “public” to the urgency of the individual’s needs, culminating in Cage’s Peter literally talking to a post, is heady stuff. Vampire’s Kiss, pretty much never recognized, is even more important today than it was in the summer of 1989.

Originally published at Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door.

Review: The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday may rate a footnote in film history as the first Hollywood Western to include oral-genital humor, and if that’s your idea of cinematic immortality, enjoy. As American-International Pictures’ first “class” production, the film does not bode well. Any one of AIP’s beach party flicks was funnier, and quite a few of their horror and action programmers have shown more class. You can wonder about the title for a while (Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday … is it a train? a medicine show act? a holiday?), but what it refers to is this old scout (Lee Marvin) who helped win the West and then misplaced his share of it; and this young refugee from a whorehouse (Kay Lenz) whose name becomes Thursday only momentarily, and irrelevantly. They travel some together, along with a clap-ridden halfbreed who went to Harvard (Oliver Reed) and an ineffectually randy reprobate (Strother Martin). There’s an old pal of the male trio’s (Robert Culp) who’s boondoggled and bombasted his way to a position of political prominence, along the way marrying the scout’s erstwhile girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley), and we can’t forget—although we try, oh do we try!—the putatively lesbian madam (Sylvia Miles) our adventurers have “stolen” Thursday from. The Old West was a pretty silly place, you know: people fell in the mud a lot, and everybody was basically some kind of cheat. The music tells you when things are supposed to be funny, which is about 95 percent of the time; and about 100 percent of the time, it’s wrong.

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Review: Windows

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scène to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.

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