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Movietone News 41

The bars on the window: Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’ makes an overdue return voyage

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, Nov. 16, 2005]

[The Passenger screens at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, March 24; details here]

My wife and I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at a matinee in 1975 and went straight to the studios of KRAB-FM to talk about it. There we discovered—on the air—that one of us thought it was pretentious hooey and the other thought it was a brilliant, radical, and probably great film. We still cherish memories of that argument, although after revisiting the picture a couple of years later there was no daylight between us: we both knew we’d seen a masterpiece.

Antonioni’s oeuvre was distinctive from the outset, though never easy or comfortable. In the Fifties, in films such as The Story of a Love Affair and The Girlfriends (films that wouldn’t be seen in the States till decades later), he showed himself to be the cinema’s closest equivalent to a modern novelist, exploring nuances of behavior and (mostly) alienation as his characters moved through an increasingly chilly, inorganic world. L’avventura in 1960 was one of the movies that set benchmarks for modern film artistry and set the tone for a decade of increased seriousness about filmgoing on the part of American audiences—at least, of those that frequented the arthouses. With Blowup in 1966 Antonioni crossed over into English-language filmmaking and regular moviehouses; his work remained as enigmatic—and as essentially nonverbal—as ever, but now he had Hollywood patronage (MGM) going for him, and the more or less coincidental whiffs of sensationalism deriving from a Swinging London milieu and a little envelope-pushing nudity. Zabriskie Point (1970), his first (and only) film set in America and a dubious contribution to “the Revolution” much bruited about at the time, proved to be a fiasco with critics and public alike. But in The Passenger, or Profession: Reporter, as the Italian version was titled, he had the star of the zeitgeist, Jack Nicholson, as a key collaborator. And he had what L’avventura and Blowup had also had: enough of a story—a mystery—to suck an audience in for whatever other itinerary the director might care to lead them on.

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Review: Shaolin Martial Arts

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Is the making of many potboilers a prime way to fashion an auteur? If so, a veritable Pantheon of those critics’ darlings must have matriculated by now at the humming factories of Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. Plenty of scope over there for that magical tension between a director’s “personality” and the miserable formulaic projects he keeps getting saddled with by his producers. I sample the product occasionally at Vancouver’s two chief outlets for Chinese movies, but my experience so far is that any new movie directed by, say, Lo Wei (and nine out of ten new Chinese movies do seem to have been directed by Lo Wei) resembles the last movie directed by Lo Wei only insofar as both are unimaginative and totally predictable hack jobs. English critic Tony Rayns, who has made “the labyrinth of Hong Kong cinema” his special province, performs prodigies of genre analysis, structuralism, semantic reading upon these movies; if only seeing them proved half as much fun as reading about them! Still, I’m grateful that Rayns steered me to Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (MTN 35), which combined genre conventions and sheer outrageousness in surprising ways. And having recently caught two-thirds of Chang Cheh’s epic martial-arts trilogy (Men from the Monastery / Heroes Two / Shao Lin Martial Arts), I can now share some of Rayns’s enthusiasm for this director.

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Review: The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Memory and mortality are, almost by structural definition, the two cloutiest themes movies can tackle. Memory is implicit in any film with the least vestige of form and design: we recognize correspondences between shots, scenes, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything, and something goes ding!, consciously or not; and in a good movie something in the world implicitly goes ding! as well, since a piece of the world has just been held up for us in a context new and yet fraught with recognizability. Mortality we have always with us: all the fancy curtain-openings and -closes, all the shadow-boxes and halo-lights, all the mushy focus (in the camera or in the projection booth) that may actively or inadvertently try to slur the boundaries of life and movie can’t cancel the basic fact of light and not-light, film and no-film, experience and nothingness. So when a movie that plays with these twin or at least sibling themes goes belly-up in a welter of blah, the filmmakers’ failure is even more pronounced than that of your average suburban-theater-circuit mediocrity.

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Review: Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

“My stepmother and I used to go to these … spiritualistic meetings, and get messages from …”—a little hand gesture—”yonder. They went into trances and said that Liszt was standing in back of me.” The 73-year-old reminisces about her childhood in California: receiving piano lessons so that she’d stop biting her nails; finding gratification playing at her stepmother’s séances “because ladies would come up afterwards and hold me in their arms.'” Antonia Brico’s articulate recollections always link music to love, and this documentary, inspired by her former student Judy Collins and put together by Jill Godmilow, communicates from start to finish Antonia’s enormous capacity for both music and love. Her life as a conductor really began in 1930. A Movietone newsreel presents her as she performed Dvorak’s D minor symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. A montage of newspaper headlines then illustrates the immense critical success the “American girl” enjoyed—although we learn that security in success would never grace her career. Back in the United States, despite resistance on the part of the male-dominated musical establishment, Antonia recounts how she managed to conduct two concerts in New York. More rave reviews. But the third never occurred because the male soloist poutishly declared that he would never sing under a female’s direction. Only slightly daunted, Brico’s next claim to fame was the founding of the Brico Symphony Orchestra, the all-women enterprise that made headlines for a couple of years and sparked a raging, publicity-studded controversy between Brico and Jose Iturbi on the relative competence of men and women musicians. A silly but endearing animated entr’acte invades the screen: “The Great Kettledrum Contest of 1937,” a grueling cartoon duel between a barrel-chested maestro and a demure young maestra. Guess who outplays whom.

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Review: The Passenger

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Long after any sane deadline for MTN 41—with half the pages already slapped down, in fact—Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, formerly Profession: Reporter, formerly either The Final Exit or The Fatal Exit, I can’t remember which, was sneak-previewed in Seattle. Within a few days—just before this magazine comes out—it will have opened at the Music Box Theatre for what may well be a short run—short because people who grooved on Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and The Last Detail and maybe even Easy Rider may be frustrated by Nicholson’s low-key incarnation of a character with so little edge that he keeps sliding right out of the frame. It merits longer, more seasoned consideration; but for the moment, something ought to be said about it.

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Out of the Past: Get to Know Your Rabbit

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Get to Know Your Rabbit represents a transition in the work of Brian De Palma, from the unrestrained precocity of his grainy independents Greetings (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970) to the more controlled and purposeful talent critics have seen in his recent films Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Genre-parody is clearly one of the beacons of De Palma’s career so far; and what Get to Know Your Rabbit boils down to is a parody of dropping-out films. De Palma’s drop-out here, Donald Beeman (Tommy Smothers, characteristically naïve in a role that really calls for the more complex subtlety Robert De Niro brought to the earlier two films), drops all the way: from promising junior executive with an expensive apartment and a sexy mistress, to lonely flophouse roomer seeking a new lifestyle by attending a sleazy school for tap-dancing magicians. Informing the film’s plot are the untiring efforts of Beeman’s former supervisor Turnbull (superbly played by John Astin) to, first, get Donald to come back to work, and, when that fails, to build around Donald (and without his knowledge) a multimillion-dollar corporation devoted to training executive drop-outs to be tap-dancing magicians and managing their road tours through fifth-string night spots in bush-league towns.

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Caliban in Bodega Bay

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

The birds have really made a mess of Bodega Bay. Smoke from a gasoline fire hangs heavy over the city; bodies lie in the streets: abandoned automobiles, smashed windows, and ripped woodwork are grim evidence that the human beings have not won this battle. With Mitch Brenner’s help, Melanie Daniels has escaped the glass cage of a telephone booth and made her way to the relative safety of the town’s central meeting place, a small café.

At first, the place appears empty; but, exploring further, Mitch and Melanie discover, cringing in a back hallway, a frightened group of townspeople and visitors. As Mitch leads Melanie into this refuge, a woman comes forward. We have met her earlier: a distressed mother whose concern for the safety of her two children has prompted her to demand that the café’s patrons not discuss the inexplicable violence of the birds within the range of juvenile ears. Her escape from Bodega Bay has been thwarted by the birds’ massive assault on the town, and the violent death of the traveling salesman who was to guide her to the freeway.

Gazing at Melanie with only slightly controlled hysteria, the woman says, with mounting shrillness: “They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!” Robin Wood points out that these words, spoken as they are to the subjective camera, can constitute an indictment of the audience, whose bloodthirst encourages the brutality of the birds’ attacks. But of course the woman’s outburst is met with a firm defensive slap in the face, also delivered by the subjective camera, and the opposition, though not defeated, is neutralized.

‘The Birds’ – In the diner

Hitchcock and scenarist Evan Hunter may have included this little encounter in anticipation of the likelihood that many critics and viewers would embrace that simplistic suggestion, that Melanie, witch-like, had brought a curse with her to Bodega Bay. That specific notion is dispelled by radio announcements of bird attacks in other areas, and more finally by Melanie’s own victimization by the birds. But the overtone of witchcraft is not to be discarded entirely. We have already learned that the birds’ uprising coincides with the coming of the full moon, a revelation that evokes the darker traditions of folk myth.

And—all other considerations aside—the woman’s hysterical accusation is founded in fact: the bird attacks did start with Melanie’s arrival in the town, and this inevitably gives us a sense of the birds’ significance, even though the inculpation is misdirected.

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Review: Brannigan

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

There’s some terrific supporting material in that cast list, but everybody onscreen looks, and has excellent reason for feeling, pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Brannigan is the sort of picture that gives John Wayne movies a bad name. Come to think of it, Brannigan is a bad name: it’s locked right in on the monolithic image of Wayne as 110-percent American tough guy with two fists and only one operational brain lobe, and whenever it takes four scriptwriters to come up with that kind of arithmetic, somebody’s in trouble.

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