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Movietone News 53

Now That’s More Like It: A Report on the 20th San Francisco Film Festival

In honor of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, Parallax View offers a festival flashback: the Movietone News report from the 20th SFIFF.

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

The 20th San Francisco International Film Festival was … lively.

A half-dozen outstanding films from Europe were perhaps the most newsworthy events (and my list does not include the two popular successes of the festival, Truffaut’s Small Change and Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, whose screenings I was unable to attend). But it was also a memorable festival because of its stimulating variety. Last year’s program was singularly dull, and even its high points seemed to confirm a sense of despair and dead ends, artistically and otherwise. [See “Out of Season”, MTN 46.] But this year San Francisco not only came up with good movies; it also managed to be festive in a way that livened one’s sense of the art and its possibilities.

Films by Alain Tanner, Alexander Kluge, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Claude Miller, Eric Rohmer, and Marco Bellocchio all demonstrated that, contrary to well-founded rumors, the cinema is not dead yet. And there was more: Hollywood on Trial, a documentary, became the catalyst for some revealing “political” moments; Pierre Rissient’s One Night Stand drew an audience reaction which suggested that Nouveau Puritans are everywhere, still; a goodly number of short films reaffirmed the value of work being done in that less-publicized area of filmmaking; and recent Spanish cinema, thanks to some special screenings, began to look like a significant factor in current moviemaking.

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1976, Which Will Be Charitably Forgotten by the Year 2000

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

1976 is a year I’m very pleased to see the back of. Several especially nice things happened to me during the past twelvemonth, but an oversupply of cloaca also insisted on hitting the fan with dispiriting frequency, and a good deal of it was cinematic cloaca. Any year in which the man who just made Nashville turns around and makes Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson, and people who really ought to know better hail Lina Wertmuller as a distaff version of the Second Coming and Network as a serious film of intellectual and aesthetic importance, and the public is asked to pay good money to watch Midway, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Scorchy, The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, Swashbuckler, Vigilante Force and A Star Is Born Barbra Streisand–style can’t be anything but the harbinger of a new Dark Age.

It didn’t help that some normally reliable film artists seemed ‘way off the beam. That The Magic Flute, Bergman’s not-very-adventurous filming of a Mozart performance, or Face to Face, a closet drama of a rather insipid creature who was welcome to stay in her closet (Liv Ullmann’s heroic performance notwithstanding), failed to move me much wasn’t particularly disheartening or even unexpected. (I wish he’d make a spy movie.) Neither, given the international coproduction problems and the preponderance of treacle in the basic makeup of The Blue Bird, was there great surprise in George Cukor’s inability (decision?) to just let the thing lie there and moult.

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Review: The Next Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Voyeurs with the socially redeeming grace of cinematic conscientiousness, despair: Cornelia Sharpe has had her big chance, and she botched it. A near Dunaway-lookalike whose face and body—clad or not—irresistibly drew the eye whenever she eased into frame in Serpico and Busting, Sharpe aroused, among other things, hope in the breast of anyone with a lech to welcome another glamorous actress to the comparatively de-glamorized contemporary screen. Glamorous she remains in The Next Man, but scarcely anything more. And without that something more, the meretricious narrative folds up on itself like the aggregate memories of every undistinguished spy flick you ever waited through to see the main feature.

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Review: Silent Movie

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Silent Movie is Mel Brooks’s best film to date, and his first unqualifiedly successful movie. His earlier films, funny as they are, are hampered by unevenness and overemphasis, and by the kind of selfcongratulatory distrust of the audience that makes Brooks hold his shots too long, zoom in insistently on his sight gags, use the same joke again and again under the misapprehension that that makes it a running gag, or—when in doubt—have an unlikely person say “bullshit” or burst into Cole Porter. Silent Movie is a more personal film than the others, and—probably not coincidentally—the first in which Brooks has cast himself in a lead role. In fact, there is a sense in which Silent Movie is Brooks’s 8 1/2: The end title informs us “This was a true story,” and though we are reasonably certain that the man who made Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein didn’t exactly have to go through hell to convince a studio to let him do a silent movie, it must have been a daring and difficult idea to promote. (One wonders whether Alan Pakula, who once confessed an urge to make a contemporary silent film, ever made serious overtures to the studios.)

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Review: King Kong (1976)

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

There are good things and bad things about the new King Kong. One of the good things is that it’s nice to look at. Though the photography and production design are scarcely more interesting than those of the 1933 film, they are on an epic scale, impressive and economic, using widescreen and color to more purpose than merely out-spectacle-ing the original. The designers have retained much of the architecture in the island sequence, especially the bridal altar and the huge gate with phallic bolt, and they were wise to do so. They were equally wise to avoid the dinosaur encounters of the 1933 film, for which Willis O’Brien’s model animation was perfect. In the new version the only attempts at model work come off as distressingly poor: the huge rubber snake against which Kong battles while zoologist Jack Prescott stages his daring, pure Frank Frazetta pulp rescue of a bare-breasted Dwan from the ape’s mountain lair; and its parallel sequence in New York, Kong’s battle with a toy-sized El that, in his hand, visibly does not contain the panic-stricken passengers we see at the windows in the intercut interior shots.

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Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie covers a lot of territory and glimpses a large enough cross-section of Western character types, Leone-ish villains, and just plain folks to fill an album of rare and intriguing daguerreotypes. People getting mixed up with and along with one another travel through raw frontier country, seemingly dissociated in their respective enterprises—running away from fascistic Yankee vigilantes, looking for new suckers to buy patent medicine, following a dream of a milk-and-honey land (described in a loving son’s letters) and ending up in a boom town gone bad, repaying the debt of a life saved with unflagging allegiance to the “outlaw” who saved it—but their variety and amicably contrary professions and predilections are among the film’s most likable features. As Josey Wales (Eastwood) moves from that richly colored, deep-wooded Missouri hills country to arid parts west beneath skies brushed a thin blue, where an abundance of rocky places accommodate the likes of bandits, Comanche, and the frontier flotsam of dying boom towns, one begins to feel that the landscapes of the movie are as various as Eastwood’s veritable throng of characters. The progression from East to West, from the cypress-dripping South of Siegel’s and Eastwood’s The Beguiled to starker outcroppings of men and stone that characterize a contemporary Western like Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid seems as natural as the accumulation of humankind that marks Wales’ journey.

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Review: Cousin, Cousine

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Children are scolded it’s a “solemn occasion” that they’re travelling to: Tacchella cuts to their grandmother the bride chugging beer at her wedding reception and then to the grandchildren seated behind their own rose-colored soft drinks. Bridegroom Gobert’s pants go down at the peak of the celebration, and “Cousin” Ludovie’s wife Kanne’s skirt goes up to reveal motorcycle-riding underwear as the focal couples’ reunion with their spouses signals the festivity’s end. “Cousine” Marthe’s husband Pascal ends a string of affairs in relief against a background of brown purses, then white pharmaceuticals, then an environmentally complementary family-planning clinic where the rhythm of the philanderer’s new-leaf-turning montage is interrupted and altered to comic effect. Such cutting, color, contrasts and expectation thwartings are the subtext upon which Cousin, Cousine’s more obvious charms of character and situation rest.

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The New Life Begins: Dantean Obsession in ‘Obsession’

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Once you’ve experienced the multiple twists and revelations in the last reel of Brian De Palma’s Obsession, and you think about what’s gone before, the basic storyline appears not only terribly contrived but in several ways downright impossible. But the film nevertheless works by the sheer power of a marvelously inventive, multi-layered screenplay brought to life by the simultaneously literary and stylistic genius of one of the most important young American directors. A story as involved and rich as Paul Schrader’s scenario must be firmly grounded in explicable plot; but Vilmos Zsigmond’s richly suggestive cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s relentless-pace editing, under the careful and inspired direction of De Palma, mix memory and desire even more effectively than Schrader’s story. The ultimate achievement of Obsession is not a matching of style to content so much as a resolution of content into pure style.

Inferno

At its most immediately obvious, the film’s title refers to New Orleans businessman Mike Courtland’s fixation on, first, the death of his young wife Elizabeth in a 1959 kidnap plot; second, his guilt for her death, in having delivered false money to the kidnappers; and, third, the stunning resemblance of a young Florentine art student, met 16 years later, to his dead wife. Court’s is the central experience of the film, the one which most drives its development.

Yet a second association with the idea of “obsession” arises when Court’s psychiatrist describes the student, Sandra Portinari, whom Court has brought back from Florence to his home, as having become “obsessed” with the idea of Elizabeth, to the point of hoping completely to replace the woman she so dramatically resembles. (This is the turning-back point for those who have not seen Obsession; reading on can irreparably harm one’s experience of the film.) When, toward the end of the movie, we learn that Sandra is really Amy, the daughter of Court and Elizabeth presumed killed with her mother 16 years earlier, we perceive yet another obsession motivating her: a methodic repetition of the events of 1959, with the hope of either restoring lost certainty of a father’s love or confirming forever his guilt and avenging herself on him for her mother’s death.

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Review: Carrie

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

For the past 16 years I’ve been unable to step into a shower without thinking of Psycho. For the next 16, Carrie will have the same effect on me. The film’s opening credits sequence is the most audacious voyeuristic fantasy Brian De Palma has yet given us. In Sisters, an apparently blind woman mistook the men’s dressing room for the women’s, walked in and started to undress as we watched. In Carrie, in a sort of National Lampoon–ish low camp, De Palma takes his camera into a high school girls’ lockerroom just after gym class. But even more quickly than it does in Sisters, the adolescent leering turns to painfully mature shock and horror. In the locker room scene and throughout the film that follows, De Palma has captured the uniquely abominable cruelty of which adolescents are capable (a side of high school that’s been conveniently overlooked in recent TV and movie high school nostalgia); and, though it may be a bit overstated here, it’s a chillingly universal basis on which to build a monumental film of emotional and spiritual horror.

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Review: The Seven Percent Solution

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Sherlock Holmes is an item nowadays. When Billy Wilder’s exquisitely personal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, he was such a commercial irrelevancy that the cashiers at the now-deceased Blue Mouse, where the picture was showing, were taking calls for Love Story at their sister theater, the Music Box, across the street (I phoned up one evening to ask when “the show” started, and arrived in midfilm—it had never occurred to the harried phone person that somebody wanted to see the show in her theater; I eventually did see it the next evening, with about eight other people in attendance). While the Wilder picture is well on the way to winning its proper place in the annals of cinema, it’s hard not to resent the fickleness of fate and mass audience tastes—or the commercial inevitability of Nicholas Meyer’s trivially amusing bestseller The Seven Percent Solution finding its luxurious way to holiday screens via a property packager like Herbert Ross. The resultant film is enjoyable enough most of the time—handsome in its production values (Ken Adam has already demonstrated his skill at period reconstruction in Barry Lyndon, and Oswald Morris has been one of the best color cameramen in the business since he and John Huston began remixing the Technicolor palette in Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick), blessed with several appealing, if manneristic, performances, and somewhat more adventurous in its narrative idiom(s) than was Meyer’s novel as a work of literature.

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Blood and Ashes

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and The Shootist is very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.

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Moments out of Time 1976

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

• The premiere of The Clansman, and D.W. Griffith’s stately acknowledgement of the cheers-the night we’d like to have attended, and thanks to Peter Bogdanovich for enabling us to be there: Nickelodeon….

• The duel in the barn: shafts of blue light, the flutter of pigeon wings, and the inexorable progress of ritual and fatality—Barry Lyndon

All the President’s Men: the daft imperturbability of the country club lawyer (Nicolas Coster) who, asked by Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) why he’s here at the plumbers’ arraignment, replies “I’m not here.”…

The duel in the barn: "Barry Lyndon"
The duel in the barn: "Barry Lyndon"

• The men weeping over chopped onions and the slowness of social change—Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000

• The sexual eagerness of Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem) and the old widow (Brigitte Mira) when they find one another in front of her apartment the second night—Ali—Angst essen Seele auf….

• An interview in an airport restroom—Alice in the Cities

Welcome to L.A.: Ken Hood (Harvey Keitel) gets his Christmas bonus—a partnership in the yogurt company—and rides down in the elevator. “Youuuuuu—you did it, you Kenneth! … Give me a K! Give me an E!…”

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