A biopic of Emily Dickinson sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably would be if it unfolded along conventional lines. But what if it were as unconventional as Dickinson’s poetry? I don’t mean a movie that is la-di-dah “poetic,” with out-of-focus shots of blossoms falling as classical music plays. What if the cinematic approach to the poet’s life could approximate her eccentric punctuation—full of dashes where commas usually roam—her abrupt shifts in focus, and her piercing gaze at eternity? If you could do that you’d have A Quiet Passion, an appropriately odd film from the British director Terence Davies.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business.
Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a drifting gambler who rides into the mining camp town of Presbyterian Church (named after a building that has yet to open for business), surveys the possibilities of the muddy streets and rough-hewn buildings carved out of the Oregon wilderness (Vancouver, Canada, stands in for Oregon), and stakes his claim as the slick sophisticate to give these hicks the delights of civilization, namely a whorehouse and a well-lit bar with clean floors and fancy furniture. Julie Christie is Constance Miller, a veteran hooker who hitches a ride on a steam-powered tractor and pitches McCabe a partnership. She comes on strong and knowledgeable, a professional with plenty of management experience, but look carefully in the scene where McCabe negotiates for a handful of haggard prostitutes and you’ll catch her through a doorway, just another bordello working girl taking a break. Altman does nothing to draw our attention to her but it’s the only backstory we get and you can just imagine her hatching a scheme to escape her dead-end trajectory and roll the dice on this flashy backwoods businessman who has more ambition than talent. McCabe plays the would-be frontier tycoon for the miners, striding the camp in his fox-red fur coat and Eastern bowler hat, but Mrs. Miller is the brains behind his success. That’s clear when the corporate mining concern sends in it negotiators (Michael Murphy and Antony Holland) to buy up the town and McCabe plays the hard-sell dealmaker in an ultimatum dressed up in polite ritual.
A motley crew of Louisiana National Guardsman wade out into the swamps for weekend maneuvers. It’s 1973, as the war in Vietnam is grinding away the soul of America and the heart of the military, and this platoon of weekend warriors–a volatile collection of rednecks, hotheads, jokers, and guys who probably signed up to steer clear of the draft–are like fresh recruits going into battle for the first time. They’ve got the fatigues and the cocky attitude but dubious discipline and training and their machine guns are loaded with blanks as they head into the bayou. To the Cajun swamp folk, the trappers and hunters living on the fringes of society, these men are invaders who trample their camps and steal their boats. And when one of the soldiers lets loose a burst from his weapon, laughing like the class bully after humiliating the new kid, these shadowy swamp dwellers defend themselves, becoming a guerilla strike force waging a war of terror on the utterly unprepared toy soldiers. They don’t know that it’s just blanks in those guns but it likely wouldn’t matter if they did. They’ve been attacked and they will respond. These city dwellers are out their element and after their commanding officer (Peter Coyote) is gone, the first casualty in the war of attrition, they are out of their depth, flailing around with a panic that dumps their radio, compass, map, and pretty much everything else that was supposed to keep them alive.
Southern Comfort will never be mistaken for a Nation Guard recruitment tool. Call it an anti-platoon movie. Hill gives the squad the outward accoutrements of a real fighting force, down to the uniforms and weapons, but this is a military unit in name only.
[Originally published in Argus (Seattle), 1978]
“The Duel” is one of the most mysterious stories Joseph Conrad ever wrote. Ostensibly based in fact, it recounts the bizarre involvement of two career officers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée who, in the first year of the Little Corporal’s reign, become adversaries in a private quarrel no other man—and perhaps only one of the participants—understands.
Feraud, low-born, impetuous, wholly committed to his emperor and a relentless code of honor, consecrates his every energy to defending both. In battle a tiger, off the field of armies he moves from one duel, one test of strength, to another. D’Hubert is a career officer by aristocratic avocation; he meets both advancement and setback with an air of ironical amusement, an aesthete’s sense of form.
Their initial combat is forced upon D’Hubert. Almost accidentally, he emerges from it the victor, and sends his personal surgeon to tend Feraud’s wounds. Feraud demands a rematch, wounds D’Hubert this time, but refuses to call it even. To his annoyance and eventually his horror, D’Hubert realizes that the man intends to pursue the matter to the death.
And so it goes each time fate throws them together—for nearly two decades: from the cosmopolitan coziness of German billets to the icy retreat from Moscow; through the collapse of two Napoleonic regimes, to the dawn of what ought to be D’Hubert’s easy middle age as a country gentleman and doting husband.
This enigmatic tale, missing from most contemporary anthologies of Conrad’s work, provides the basis of an extraordinary film, The Duellists, written by Gerald Vaughn-Hughes and directed by Ridley Scott. It created a sensation at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival exactly one full year ago, but its American distributor has only now got round to releasing it. Indeed, they haven’t so much released it as absentmindedly permitted it to wander off on its own.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
The personal style and vision evident in Jeanne Moreau’s directorial opus one has as much to do with movies, and with a career—and a life—on film, as with the so-called “real world.” The opening title sequence is a flashy and rhythmic clash of type-styles evoking the media hype of film advertising: names in lights, the calligraphy of stardom. Constantly throughout the film the language of movies becomes, or replaces, the language of life. Thomas, the has-been boyfriend being slowly eased out of Sarah’s life, “directs” her leavetaking from him in a prophetic early scene: “She kisses him and turns to go,” he says, as Moreau the actress does just that; and then, “she leaves…. Cut!”—and Moreau the director cuts. And just as movie talk replaces “real” talk, and montage replaces the duration of real time, so, in Lumière, movement is camera movement. The camera is virtually never still during the opening sequences, which form a present-tense prologue placing the remainder of the film firmly in the realm of memory. Moreau’s composition conveys the sharpness of painful memory, even while her ambling camera and almost random continuity carry with them the atmosphere of the process of human reflection. Sound often precedes image, as if inspiring it (in the archetypal creative act, the word of creation always precedes the object created): several sequences begin with a bridge of dark frames accompanied by a sound that will be explained only when the next image meets our eyes. So even while keeping us aware of her medium and its limitations, Moreau reminds us of its power of suggestion, its extension beyond mere light, into feeling and meaning.
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle (Tribeca)
The feature debut of award winning short film director David Russo begins as a journey through the strange life of late-night janitors and ends up a very different kind of odyssey. Marshall Allman is the cubicle monkey Dory, a “Data Meister” who flips out at work and ends up with a janitorial service that cleans up after a market research firm working on an experimental (and, it turns out, highly-addictive) “self-heating cookie.” Given that the cleaners like to sample the goodies left out in the offices, they make perfect test subjects: oblivious, unwitting and unlikely to sue.
The side-effects of these chemical-laced snacks are unusual to say the least, at least for the men: cramps, cravings, hallucination and finally giving birth to a living creature. Really: they poop out a little blue fish-like creature. It sounds funny and much of the time it is—Russo has a grand time with this misfit community of night-workers and much of the humor of their work and their social fun and games is drawn from his own years as an after-hours janitor. Plus it delivers one of the great lines of the year, spoken as a couple of janitors peer over what they assume is a weird blue poop left in a toilet: “You guys name your dumps?” “The great ones name themselves.” But when those men face the life that came out of their body, flipping and squirming and gasping for life before expiring, the primal force of those unformed, confused emotions—helplessness, loss, the primitive biological imperative to protect this thing, as alien as it is, that came from their body—is terribly touching.
Russo hasn’t quite mastered narrative but his compassion for the characters is genuine and the spiritual hunger of these dropouts flailing around for meaning and direction—Dory sampling his way through the faiths of the world, trying each on like a new suit and seeing how it fits, and alpha janitor O.C. (Vince Vieluf ) turning his work into outsider art—has an authenticity to it. And then there is the deliriously imaginative imagery created largely by Russo in the distinctive, largely hand-made animation style of his shorts. Even when they create their own little film within the film, like the pixilated swim of the fish from the barroom painting through Dory’s chemical-addled consciousness, they are less special effects than dreamy side-trips through experiences we don’t usually get in indie features. Russo doesn’t strive for verisimilitude or realism, he embraces the unreality of their break with the real world. The fishes, however, are both real and unreal, glowing and hyper-present, natural and unnatural, flopping around like a desperate creature trying to escape a terrifying situation, as vivid and organic as Lynch’s Eraserhead baby.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
As much as anything else, Pretty Baby is about the end of an eraâ€”the ragtime era. Music is so much a part of the film’s atmosphere and texture that it seems an aspect of the production design; and the music reflects that delicate transitional period in popular music when the formal, classical ragtime of Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin began to give way to the freer-flowing “walking” sound of New Orleans bluesâ€”a step in the long process whereby African tribal chant and slavery-days work songs developed into the liberated, improvisational swing of the Jazz Age. The pivotal figure in the transition from the Sedalia sound of Joplin to the New Orleans sound that became Dixieland was Jelly Roll Morton, who for all practical purposes appears in the film as “The Professor,” a lean cathouse piano player portrayed by Antonio Fargas, who even looks a little like the old Jelly Roll. Morton did much of his best work playing nights in Storyville; and the closing-down of New Orleans’s fabled red-light district by the U.S. Navy in 1917 was both the end of an era and the reason why many suddenly unemployed musiciansâ€”playing something they then called “jass”â€”fanned out across the country, bringing a new sound with them. In Pretty Baby, when Madame Nell’s closes up and the furniture is being carted off, the Professor still sits, playing a last few bars on his piano as the movers pick it up; he turns quickly away with a tossed-off “Lousy old piano anyway…” to cut the pain of being separated from a part of himself. Fargas has another great moment, earlier in the film, in the close, long take of the Professor’s face, with God-knows-what-all passing through his mind, as the brothel patrons bid for the privilege of taking the virginity of the girl Violet: fleshpeddling of two different kinds meet at that moment in the pained awareness of one face that has seen too much.