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Haskell Wexler

Review: American Graffiti

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.

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The Realist Renaissance

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”

The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On the Waterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.

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Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

In just about every Jack Nicholson performance there is a moment (often more than one moment) when Nicholson’s face reflects something suddenly and deeply wrong with the universe. In Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest one of those moments of both recognition and profound confusion comes after Billy has been trundled off to bed with Mac’s girlfriend Candy and McMurphy has disposed himself near the open window to wait. He begins by sharing some rum with Chief Bromden and finally sinks to a sitting position on the floor. Closeup on Nicholson’s face. He smiles, glancing in the direction Billy and Candy have gone, and then without warning or apparent reason the grin drops from sight, McMurphy’s mouth opens slightly, and his brows pull a little closer together. The window is open behind him, but somehow you know (regardless of whether you’ve read the book or the play) that McMurphy will not be crawling through it, and you’re not really sure why. After a moment, the smile creeps back onto Nicholson’s face, but then his eyes close and we cut to the next morning, the window still open, McMurphy and the Chief passed out underneath it.

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“You never know how you’re going to get from point A to point B”: Robert Forster Interviewed

Quentin Tarantino developed a reputation not simply for unconventional storytelling and inventive writing, but for inspired casting. Reservoir Dogs introduced Lawrence Tierney to a new generation of crime movie fans. Pulp Fiction revived the faltering career of John Travolta. And Jackie Brown, his first film based on someone else’s story, he cast as his leads two veterans of the seventies drive-in and exploitation cinema: Pam Grier and Robert Forster.

Last week I published my interview with Ms. Grier. This week, I present my conversation with Mr. Forster, one of the most underrated performers of his time and an actor we almost lost to neglect before Tarantino gave him a showcase. Again, limited to twenty minutes, I had very little time to really dig into his career, but I was able to touch on some of my favorite films of his, and discover that they are his favorites as well.

Sean Axmaker: Let’s talk about Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino was a fan of your films. Were you a fan of his when you were cast?

Robert Forster: Well, sure. This guy made great movies. I had auditioned for one of his movies, for Reservoir Dogs. I thought I was going to get it until I realized that he had dedicated the film to the guy to did the part that I wanted, Lawrence Tierney. So it came as a big surprise when I walked out of that audition thinking that I had just hit it out of the park, and then Quentin comes out after me and says, “Look, this isn’t going to work. I’m going to give this part to the guy I dedicated the script to, but I won’t forget you.” And I thought, “Okay, good.” And then he did Pulp Fiction and became a huge filmmaker and years had gone by and I ran into him in a coffee shop. By then my career was really, really dead and we blah-blahed for a few minutes and then six months later he showed up at the same coffee shop with a script in his hands and handed it to me. I by then had been reduced to hoping some young guy who liked me growing up would turn into a moviemaker and give me a good part and here comes the guy and what a script! When I read it I could hardly believe that he had me in mind for Max Cherry except that nothing else made any sense, so when I asked him about it he said, “Yes, it’s Max Cherry that I wrote for you,” and that’s when I said to him, “I’m sure they’re not going to let you hire me.” Because I’ve had the experience of getting close to good parts and realizing the distributors wanted something else. So when I said that too him, he said, “I hire anybody I want.” And that’s when I realized I was going to get another shot at a career and this guy gave me what I’d been hoping for: a good part from someone who liked me growing up.

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Review: Bound For Glory

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

The forces of freedom and spontaneity have a way of dominating foregrounds in Bound for Glory: kids, in closeup, singing a Guthrie children’s-ditty whose beat seems slightly out of sync with the mechanical rhythm of the motion their parents make as they stoop and pick vegetables deep in the shot; or Woody himself singing songs of protest in a recording studio while behind him in another booth a trio of radio actors read from what might well be some escapist Depression comedy script (we can’t hear their voices but their expressions and gestures are pretty inane). On the other hand, authority and oppression—or at least the powers of inertia maintaining the social and political status quo—seem to mobilize in murky backgrounds such as those we find in a California fruit camp where bosses and thugs mill about à la John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, preparing to break up a hoedown they figure is pretty subversive—a crowd of homeless migrants clumped around blinking fires, making music into the night. Perhaps there’s no hard and fast rule at work, but such a visual structuring presents itself often enough to warrant some thought; and the matter of perspective is especially vital because Bound for Glory is to a large extent about how, in the Seventies, we see Woody Guthrie as a folk hero.

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Review: Bound For Glory

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

To make a film celebrating the life of Woody Guthrie, and to nominate that film for Academy Awards, is something like the U.S. Government’s putting Henry David Thoreau on a postage stamp. It’s a way of institutionalizing the pariah as a practitioner of the American ideal, once he is safely dead and no longer a danger to the American reality. Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory is an appropriate reflection of this double standard. For a film bent from the beginning on the canonization of its hero, Bound for Glory is oddly noncommittal about what Woody Guthrie stood for and what his positive accomplishments were. The movie carefully sidesteps central political issues. Indeed, how politically serious can a film about Guthrie and the farmworkers’ movement hope to be, when it is afraid to say “Communist” in any but a derisive tone? Sign-painter Guthrie’s insistence on red paint is a droll reference to the political conviction that dare not speak its name; but in the mincing context of Ashby’s film, it becomes indicative instead of Guthrie’s personal attraction to freedom to the exclusion of self-discipline and responsibility.

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Review: Coming Home

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Like Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s latest attempt at chronicling the moods of an era is an honest if ham-handed effort. As in Shampoo, a love triangle becomes emblematic of the political and social polarities of a nation at the crossroads (an idea that was old before Doctor Zhivago). Coming Home also shares with Shampoo a self-deluding sense of its own importance and originality; it says nothing about Vietnam and the Sixties that hasn’t been said for the past ten years, and speaks only to those who already know, and feel, more than Ashby’s film ever manages to express. Nevertheless, the powerfully acted love story between officer’s wife Sally Hyde (Fonda) and wounded vet Luke Martin (Voight) is tenderly felt, a welling-up of joy tinged with the guilt of infidelity that reflects the larger, less overt guilt of rebellion against Uncle Sam and all that he stands for. There’s an important truth here: Sally changes her whole lifestyle, and her convictions, not out of a moral or political commitment, but because she falls in love—just as opposition to the Vietnam War was initially grounded in personal attachment to the people whose lives were wasted there, while the sense of moral outrage came later, an extension and justification of the more concrete personal resistance. It’s something Ashby and scenarists seem to recognize in making Luke Martin someone Sally knows from high school; and the Fellini-esque airport sequence of the dead and wounded coming home together (Haskell Wexler’s finest moment in an uncharacteristically pedestrian job of cinematography) recognizes the basis of American opposition to the war in the searing intimacy of the suffering of friends and neighbors, lovers, husbands, sons.

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Review: Days of Heaven

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven seems made for Dolby stereo, in the way that certain films were made for Cinerama and not just in Cinerama. I was immediately struck by the film’s showy, deliberately unrealistic use of sound: left and right speakers cutting in and out, sound associated with an onscreen image coming noticeably from an offscreen location, bigger-than-life sound disembodied from its source in the frame. Indeed, Malick and Nestor Almendros have so tightly composed the frames of Days of Heaven that this use of sound is the only clue that a world exists beyond the frame; and that suits the purposes of this big, stark movie, separating its private worlds from the larger world in which its characters dwell. The crisp, sharp photography, and Jack Fisk’s meticulous art direction, offer us a very tidy world, with the same keen-edged precision seen in the worlds of, for example, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas, or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Undiffused light seems not merely to illuminate the images but actually to define them. And the result is a world so precise as to seem frozen, as if in an album, or in a memory—which is, of course, what Days of Heaven is, and why its tidiness bespeaks a deceptive simplicity. The frame is filled with what the girl-narrator remembers, not with realistic re-creations of an era. No one actually seems to live and work in the rooms and fields of Days of Heaven; rather, people and the environment seem to coexist as elements of a studied harmonic composition—a composition we must see as the apprehension and re-ordering of reality by the girl’s remembering mind. The fact that the film depicts many scenes that the girl could not have witnessed only further justifies the stylized simplicity with which Malick portrays events that are necessarily more of the imagination than of history.

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