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Fred Koenekamp

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: Papillon

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Like Franklin Schaffner’s previous picture Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon improves markedly in the second half. Not that, in the manner of a true roadshow, Papillon has an intermission (at least not in its present berth at the Coliseum—don’t take bets on the second run). And in some respects that’s what it looked to be, a roadshow: 150-minutes running time, reported $13,000,000 cost, bestseller origin. But the producers’ spectacular ambitions are undercut time and again by two factors: by the fact that the essential dramatic interest inheres in the grotesquely confined agonies of one man and, beyond that, in the unlikely (which is to say, in entertainment terms, likely) friendship and love of two men; and by the very nature of Franklin Schaffner as a director—that he is also one of the producers serves not so much to contradict my idea of Schaffner the director as to index an ambivalence that is the richest source of tension in the movie. Schaffner came from TV, and while he has few of the obnoxious visual affectations of the TV-trained director, he tends to restrict the most significant actions and relationships in his films to spatial arenas that could be served very adequately by the tube rather than the Panavision screen: the real convention hustle in The Best Man takes place in hotel rooms, hallways, and basements; the tensest moments in his strange and (to me) very sympathetic medieval mini-epic The War Lord are confined to a small soundstage clearing or that besieged tower; the battle scenes in Patton are hardly clumsy, but the real show is George C. Scott; and Nicholas and Alexandra comes alive only after the royal family has been penned up under the watchful eyes of Ian Holm and then Alan Webb, far from the splendor of St. Petersburg or the shambles of the Great War.

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Review: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

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