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Movietone News 54

In Black & White: The New Wave

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

THE NEW WAVE. By James Monaco. Oxford University Press. 372 pages. $15.95.

The French New Wave is the richest single “trend” in the cinema of the second half of this century, and the only aspect of film history that presently seems to have much relevance to the muddled movie art of the 1970s. It may also be the last significant “national” period in our increasingly internationalized film world. Also, it just may be as big a part of “the problem”—of contemporary movies—as it is of “the solution.” But none of this, it turns out, is especially important in James Monaco’s new book.

Monaco’s The New Wave is really a book about Truffaut and Godard with chapters on Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette. The author’s version of la nouvelle vague omits Resnais, Varda, Derny, Malle, Rozier and other relevant figures, and limits itself to what is really the Cahiers du Cinéma branch of the New Wave. All five of Monaco’s directors are former Cahiers critics, and Monaco is especially interested in the ways in which their films take a critical approach to the nature of film language. The result is, at least in part, a book about movies-as-film-criticism—all the more so since Monaco devotes considerable space to the directors’ declared intentions for their film work.

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Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

There’s nothing very remarkable in the fact that some habitually pretentious Television Artists—Herbert Brodkin, James Costigan, Anthony Page—have gone and made a bad, turgid, opportunistic, narratively trite and historically slipshod TV-movie about Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood experiences. What is rather remarkable is that they made such a stupid movie, and made it at this particular moment in cultural history. The film is couched in the sort of self-congratulatory antagonism toward Hollywood that long ago died of shame (or so I had naïvely assumed) everywhere save the most icebound corners of certain backwoods English departments and the cocktail party circuit where people are still foolish enough to talk to and get quoted by Pauline Kael.

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“You’re Goddam Right I Remember” – Howard Hawks Interviewed

by Kathleen Murphy and Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Howard Winchester Hawks was home the afternoon of July 12, 1976. For some time there, it looked as if it wouldn’t happen. Kathleen Murphy had finally taken the leap and declared Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition as her dissertation subject. Then she decided she’d better talk with the man himself. Phone calls were made, and friendly sounds, but Hawks could never plan “that far ahead” because he was “working on a story.” When “that far ahead” got cut to a little over a day and a half, it was on, and there was a frantic scramble for a borrowed tape recorder (courtesy of Ron Green), plane reservations, and an L.A. homebase (provided by Rick and Leslie Thompson). That was Saturday; Sunday, we flew; Monday morning, we were driving in a rental car to get to Palm Springs by noon.

When we walked in out of the 98° air about five minutes late, three dogs checked us over while our host continued strongly to advise the person on the other end of his phone line that the air conditioning equipment he’d installed wasn’t working, and that he, Hawks, had come to the conclusion “you’re a goddam crook.” Serious doubts about the enterprise set in when I took an indicated seat on the edge of a Relaxacisor chair and inadvertently tripped the activator switch, precipitating a non-Hemingwayesque movement of the earth beneath me; and when I failed to locate the switch by conscious means, I became the object of an icy blue stare that made me feel distinctly like the “Fancy Vest” who’d been dumb enough to sidle toward his rifle under the assumption that Cole Thornton wouldn’t notice. An attempt to start recording with side two of the first cassette almost came as an anticlimax after that.

Howard Hawks on the set of "Rio Bravo" with Angie Dickinson

Still, we were there—and we stayed there. We had brought along about 30 hours worth of tape; we could have filled nearly twice that, despite several gestures of willingness to depart if we were being too much of a bother. Mr. Hawks, who had turned 80 just over a month before, had driven 350 miles the previous day, taking his son to and from a motorcycle meet in the desert; and he frequently kneaded a stiffening hand he’d once broken on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw. He talked. We talked. Whenever he left the room to find a sketch or article that had come up in the conversation, we prowled around looking at the original Red River D belt buckle on the wall, the title painting from El Dorado, the mugs painted HOWARD, FROM DUKE. The dogs clicked in and out of the immediate vicinity on the cool flagstone floor, occasionally crowding up to Hawks for special attention; he put on his sternest manner to dismiss them, but when, about the third time it happened, we managed to remark out loud that he wasn’t being very convincing, he broke into a richly pleased smile, and from then on there was a lot of laughing.

We didn’t go to Palm Springs to interview Howard Hawks for Movietone News, but in listening and relistening to the tapes and seeing the more-than-pleasure they brought to other people, we finally decided what the hell. The following represents but a portion of what we recorded. The Hemingway material, while valuable and provocative, has been left out here. We heard some of the anecdotes that previous Hawks interviews have included, and some of them are reproduced here yet again—partly because they will be new to some readers, partly because they’re wrapped around other material, partly because even many months later they still seem different to us because we heard them from Howard Hawks himself and watched him while he told them. There are scads of questions we wish we’d asked. Some we did ask didn’t go anywhere (like what happened to Malcolm Atterbury and Harry Carey Jr., listed in the credits of Rio Bravo but not on view in the film itself). Sometimes the ways Hawks misconstrued, or chose to misconstrue, the questions were almost as interesting and suggestive as more direct answers might have been; but mostly these have been edited out.

As days go, it will be hard to top. Just about the time the cassette went into the machine right, Mr. Hawks was looking at a copy of MTN 26, containing the John Ford memorial, and remarking that he’d “seen it before—about 50 times.” He meant the Monument Valley butte on the cover. We’ll let July 12 take it from there.

RTJ

John Ford, John Wayne, acting like an old man, etc.

Well, Ford and I guess I were the only people that worked with Wayne that he didn’t want to know what the story was or he didn’t want to see the script—he just said, “When do we start?” … And of course he adored Ford. As a matter of fact, Ford came down here to die. And I used to stop in at his house and have a drink on the way to playing golf. One day I went in and he was laughing like hell, and I said, “What are ya laughing about?” and he said, “I was just remembering all of the things I’ve stolen from you.” I said, “I’ll make ya any kind of a bet that I’ve stolen more. Hell, you’d be dead before you’d even find out.” And one day—he was really laughing—he said, “I just thought of the best thing I ever stole from you. I had just a fair-to-middling picture up for an Academy Award [How Green Was My Valley] and you had a real good one [Sergeant York] and I beat ya out of it!” And when I went over to see him and he said goodbye to me about six times, I knew that something was happening and I phoned Wayne and I said, “You better get down here and see Pappy. If I were you I’d fly down.” He came down and he saw him just two or three hours before he died.
My opinion was that he was the best director in the picture business. It was very strange because we were both very pleased that the other one would steal from him. We didn’t have any feeling of jealousy or anything like that. When I made Red River with Wayne, Ford saw it and said, “I didn’t think the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” And he put him in two really good pictures immediately after, and within a year and a half Wayne was one of the biggest stars in the picture business.
Every time I made a picture with Wayne, Ford used to come down and stay with us on location, watching. And I’d say, “Can’t you wait to see it to steal something from it?”

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Of Babies, Bones and Butterflies

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977. This essay on Bringing Up Baby is a chapter of the author’s University of Washington doctoral dissertation Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition.]

Bringing Up Baby‘s narrative and thematic directions have much in common with those of Shakespearean comedy. Positing the green world of the forest against the restrictive refuges of civilization, Hawks moves from a rigid and sterile old order into an arboreal milieu of enchantment and mistaken identity, and thence to a new order which synthesizes the best of both worlds. David Huxley is caught up in a midsummer night’s dream (or nightmare) in which identity, time, direction, and traditional modes of communication are lost or changed utterly. Hawks, like some cinematic Prospero, invokes the power of music and nature to effect the existential regeneration of comic hero and heroine.

Stasis

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is introduced in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” perched on a scaffold overlooking a brontosaurus skeleton that requires just one crucial bone to be complete. As a paleontologist, his “business” is a variation on taxidermy, the construction of bones into the shape of an extinct animal. He works in a museum where legacies of the past—nature’s and civilization’s—are displayed. As Hemingway said, “Chasing yesterdays is a bum show”: David is physically and intellectually immobilized by the weight of time into a sterile imitation of life. Momentarily stirred to joy by the promised arrival of the last brontosaurus bone, an intercostal clavicle, he spontaneously attempts to embrace his primly-coiffed and -suited fiancée, Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Repressed and repressing, she rebuffs him with “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Not only does she see “time and place” as inviolably absolute categories; it is also clear that those categories will always preclude sexual spontaneity. David’s work will leave “no time for a honeymoon” and Alice proudly gestures toward the brontosaurus skeleton, announcing “This will be our child!” Sexuality and procreation, ordinarily signs of life in motion in the here and now, are frozen into images of “no time” and an unfleshed casualty of past time.

David Huxley's baby

Rather than resenting and attempting’ to defy temporal realities, as do most Hawks and Hemingway code heroes, David Huxley is forced to worship time’s power to deaden and terminate life. Miss Swallow, a walking stopwatch, reminds David that “it’s time to play golf with Mr. Peabody,” whom he is to persuade to donate a million dollars to the museum. Almost in unconscious rebellion against her maternal discipline, he boyishly exclaims “I’ll show him! I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His fiancée predictably objects to the slang—language in playful motion—and cautions, “Remember who and what you are. And let Mr. Peabody win!” Who and what you are, for Miss Swallow, are further static classifications in contrast to the potential for professional and personal development, particularly in competitive play, that is always present in Hawks’ dramatic films, For David’s fiancée, nothing must be left to chance. As David departs, he absentmindedly confuses Alice with an elderly, male colleague, almost giving him a parting kiss; for as a result of her killing categorizing, Alice has managed to confound David’s ability to recognize or respond to her as a woman. He is as unmanned in his existential refrigerator as are Francis Macomber and Robert Cohn, Hemingway men trained and enervated by women.

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Review: Rocky

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Sylvester Stallone’s meticulous job of screenwriting—street-poetry dialogue coupled with a healthy sense of humor and a sharp attentiveness to odd colloquialisms and fight-ring dialect—is largely responsible for making Rocky such an interestingly compassionate treatment of big guys against little guys. You might not think so as the film gets under way—a deliciously seedy venture into the life of a loser, a 30-year-old prizefighter named Rocky Balboa who never made it to the big time and has pretty much lost any hope of doing so. But thenceforth, Rocky tempts us onward and upward towards a crucial and emphatically hope-filled personal resolution in Rocky’s life, and that antagonism between (or perhaps balance of) the big against the little becomes not only Rocky‘s foremost theme but a part of its inner logic. There are the Apollo Creeds against the Rocky Balboas, but there are also the Big Moments against the privileged, nuanced, and seemingly offhand ones.

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Review: The Enforcer

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

James Fargo’s The Enforcer, with Clint Eastwood billed as “the Dirtiest Harry of them all,” also makes him the limpest, and represents the deterioration of the Dirty Harry Formula—if indeed there ever was such a thing.

Donald Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) told a many-layered story built around two men “above society”: Scorpio, a homicidal maniac whose madness figuratively puts him above society even as Siegel’s camera and mise-en-scène place him there visually, and Inspector Harry Callahan, who is set apart by his badge, the emblem that begins and ends the film. Contrary to the report of many who reviewed the Siegel film, Harry is no cold blooded, fascist executioner. He is sensitive, feels responsibility, takes unto himself the guilt for the inadequacies of the System and its failure to provide proper protection for the people. It is the clash of his individual morality (more that of guardian than vigilante) with the complex sociopolitical realities of the world around him that really informs Siegel’s film, and culminates in Harry’s throwing away his badge and walking into the distance behind the final credits to become one of “the little guys.” Guided by Siegel, one agrees with Harry’s impatience at a System musclebound by its own laws and procedures; yet one also understands the legitimate concern of people like the Chief of Police, the D.A. and the Mayor, and knows that Harry’s impetuousness, however effective in the Scorpio manhunt, would be grotesquely inappropriate in most police work.

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Review: The Old Gun

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

The Old Gun came to the Second Seattle International Film Festival with a host of French “Oscars” (Picture, Actor, Original Music Score) to recommend it. While Philippe Noiret was excellent (he doesn’t know how to be less than excellent, in supporting role or lead), the film itself tended to confirm that the same sorts of movies win foreign Best Picture awards that customarily take the prize in the States. The Old Gun is basically a lame excuse for a film with a Big Subject: war crimes and their devastating impact on the hearts and minds of decent individuals. Noiret plays a French physician who treats wounded Frenchmen and wounded Germans with equal diligence and compassion, sympathizes with but keeps clear of the Resistance, and mainly tries to do his job and look to the safety of his family, a wife and daughter. Most of the action takes place within hailing distance of 1944, when the Germans were hanging on to their occupied territory even though it was apparent to one and all that Allied victory was near. Noiret ships the family off to an out-of-the-way village where his tribe has maintained a château for centuries. Seeking to protect them at this critical period of the fighting, he inadvertently puts them right in the way of retreating troops desperate to make up in havoc what they cannot achieve as tactical victory; he arrives on the scene to find the village massacred, his daughter murdered, his wife reduced to a charred statue by flamethrower. The Germans, scarcely more than a patrol, are still in residence, and he sets about their methodical annihilation, making use of his familiarity with the château and its subterranean, intramural passages and an old hunting piece he recalls being stashed away in an attic.

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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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Out of the Past: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Billy Wilder’s chief motives in making the third film version of the 1928 Hecht–MacArthur Broadway smash were plain, and he admitted them: he wanted a box-office hit, badly, and this had all the elements for a 1974 killing. It’s a buddy story, a nostalgia piece, a celebration of crusading newspapermen—Woodward and Bernstein, Prohibition-style. Add leftover sets from The Sting for good measure and another re-teaming of the odd couple, Lemmon and Matthau, the latter in a role tailor-made for him. How could it fail?

But it did, thumpingly. Why? I’d suggest the very reason that made it such a good movie, so much more than the remake of the remake of the film of the hit play. Everyone said it was a perfect vehicle for Wilder—he did himself—but this is to ignore one crucial difficulty. The Front Page is a lovely old play, and it really is extremely modern. So how does an auteur as strong as Wilder adapt it with the respect it deserves without submerging his own personality? No one could want, after all this time, to see a Billy Wilder film where Billy Wilder simply translates 46-year-old jokes, however good, into celluloid terms. At the same time, no one wants to see a film of The Front Page which ignores the splendid original. The trick was to find an element personal to Wilder within that elaborate framework, and this he did. And this is why the public stayed away, just as they had done from Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie and even The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (which, for me, is Wilder’s masterpiece). For most of  Wilder’s later films tend to be about loneliness, despair, desperation (this is even true, to an extent, of the sunny, romantic and very beautiful Avanti!), and these things are at the forefront of his version of The Front Page.

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Review: Cross of Iron

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

War is an inescapably personal experience in Cross of Iron. Nearly always from middle-shot or closer, the soldiers see the enemy they fight: many die in the embraces of their killers. No field-size moving masses of men, no distant artillery, no “targets” and “objectives.” In Peckinpah’s war there are only people—confused, afraid, in pain, screaming for survival. Peckinpah carefully chooses images emblematic of the reality of war: a soldier’s neck emptying blood into the muddy water where he lies dead; a body that has been run over so many times it has become part of the road. The awful power of his combat scenes is heightened by contrasting qualities of light and sound for the out-of-combat sequences: the warm greens and yellows in the hospital scenes and in the idyllic field to which Sergeant Rolf Steyner’s platoon escapes after a hopeless battle in a burnt-out factory contrast starkly with the cold greens, dusty grays, muddy browns of the battle zone. The absolute silence before each of several attacks in the film serves to emphasize the fury of what follows. Never has Peckinpah’s rhythmic cutting between similar violent acts been so effective in establishing the inevitability and terrible beauty of the sense of community in the meeting—and the meting-out of death.

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Review: Annie Hall

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

In Annie Hall Woody Allen has created his most personal, most serious, most painfully funny, and best film. The first three don’t necessarily imply the last, but in this case that’s the way it works out. The concern with the interrelation between comedy and pain—a transformation of the earlier Allen’s more prosaic concern with love and death—is the center of the film, as it is the center of the life of standup comic Alvy Singer, Allen’s thinly disguised portrait of himself. The simultaneous egocentricity and self-denigration implied in Allen’s portrayal of Singer—and, indeed, in Allen himself—is summed up in his delivery of a classic joke in his opening, Bergmanesque monologue. Like most of the jokes Freud cites in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, it’s not the kind of joke you laugh at: “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would have me for one of its members.” True, Allen’s throwaway style evokes a chuckle; but for Alvy Singer there is more painful truth in this paradox of a joke than there is comic hilarity. It’s actually the second of two jokes that open the film, the first being an even less laughable one about life being ugly, miserable, depressing, and all too short.

The proposition that life is both agonizing and dear is sustained throughout. When record entrepreneur Tony Lacy invites Alvy Singer to a party that promises to be “very mellow,” Alvy declines, explaining, “When I get too mellow I ripen, and then I rot.” The vision of life-vs.-death pervades everything (“All the books you ever gave me had Death in the title,” girlfriend Annie Hall complains), and the double-layered vision is reflected emphatically in the film’s imagery. Alvy was born and raised in a house underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island: superficial joy on top of nervous depression: corrosive death gnawing at the underpinnings of assertive life. Alvy’s comedy—and the play he writes about himself and Annie near the end of the film—is his response to pain, and it is a fantasy response. The play ends the way Alvy wishes the real relationship with Annie had climaxed. Elsewhere he casually produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a theater lobby sign to refute the bullshit artist in the ticket line who pontificates about McLuhan without knowing his work. “If life could only be like this!” Alvy tells the camera, acknowledging and embracing his own dependence on a fantasy of a world that will reaffirm and justify him and his ideas. In the film, people on the street don’t mind being stopped by Alvy to give their point of view, or elucidate their corner of the world; and many of them seem to have information and understanding to which he is not privy, though they are happy to share it with him and offer advice.

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Review: Slap Shot

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Slap Shot has provoked such solemn head-wagging over its failure to take a hard line, one way or the other, on the issue of sports (good, clean, manly, by-the-rules competition) vs. spectator bloodsports (decent American games—hockey in this instance—turned into vicious slugfests to parallel the psychic violence in the stands and in Our Society) that I can only conclude someone has been taking George Roy Hill seriously all these years. Why else start complaining about the absence of anything resembling moral rigorousness or a sense of narrative ethics? Surely not because Butch and Sundance only said “Oh, shit!” when plummeting down the cliffside to the rapids, whereas everyone belonging to or in the neighborhood of the Charlestown Chiefs employs every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter word in the language with the carefree abandon of yapping puppies. So OK, Slap Shot snickers into its own armpit about those crass owners and empty-skulled sportscasters and rummy fans, and then taps the oafish violence on the ice for considerable physical and/or comic exhilaration. In this case I found the moral queasiness easy to ignore, partly because I learned long ago to expect this from Hill, partly because the time to make a federal case of it was back in his more pretentious days—but mostly because Slap Shot is extremely funny, full of rowdy life and business, and irresistibly goodnatured; and you can count on the fingers of one hand all the recent movies of which that could be said, and still have enough fingers left to play cat’s cradle.

The film is particularly interesting as a Paul Newman picture in which the star gets to exercise his penchant for de-glamorizing himself without, for once, turning his performance into a social-consciousness exemplum or an act of self-denigration. The aging player-coach he portrays is a raunchy jock (like almost all his teammates), venal, sexist, not very bright. Newman creates him for what he is, without sermonizing and without denying him his broad, likably evil good humor, his tremendous—if utterly unsophisticated—joie de vivre. The rest of the nonstellar cast matches his vigor and fairness. Michael Ontkean merits special praise as the slightly-smarter-than-his-buddies player with the most acutely developed ambivalence toward the game, and manages to keep the viewer in touch with his mood and movements even when the script treatment of his character vacillates between convenient ellipsis and middling-heavy editorializing. Altman find Allan Nicholls is especially successful at serving up the bounteous scatology with convincing spontaneity and socio-psychological precision (his pained “Fuckin’ embarrassing!” as he listens to some youthful additions to their jaded team giving out with lockerroom gung-ho is priceless), and Brad Sullivan is triumphantly scuzzy as the team’s sex fiend; one expects him to be followed about by a semi-permanent attendant whose responsibility it is to wipe the drool off his nether lip every few minutes, as a token gesture toward public decency.

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