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Movietone News 55

“… they take on their own life…”: Robert Altman Interviewed

By Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Robert Altman visited Seattle late last year in connection with the world premiere of Welcome to L.A. at the Harvard Exit. The directorial debut of his sometime assistant director and—on Buffalo Bill and the Indians—co-screenwriter Alan Rudolph, Welcome also marked Altman’s bow as a producer. As a producer, he’d functioned idiosyncratically—as one might expect. Although he consulted on the casting of the film and talked with Rudolph about the general concept, he stayed out of his director’s way from then on—even the morning he woke up to find Rudolph waiting to use his house as a key set. Come to think on ‘t, holding a world preem in the Jet City was a bit idiosyncratic, too. But the town had been good to Altman movies, and for tax purposes Welcome had to open somewhere in 1976 even though its general release wasn’t due till February ’77, and the year-end biggies would effectively shut it out of New York. So here were Altman, Rudolph, Sally Kellerman, and actor, publicist, and Barbet Schroeder–movie distributor Mike Kaplan (seen in the small but telling role of Russell in Welcome), making the rounds of the morning talkshows, meeting the press individually and ensemble for lunch, and wondering, perhaps, whether Seattle knew what to do with the world premiere of a relentlessly well, idiosyncratic art movie. Seattle, as it turned out, was wondering the same thing.

MTN would like to get one thing absolutely straight: Welcome to L.A., which placed very high on several Contributors’ Ten Best Lists in #54, is Alan Rudolph’s movie; and we regret that the interview schedule obliged us to talk with Rudolph before we had had an opportunity to see his film. We used that occasion for simply getting acquainted with Alan Rudolph: enjoying his delight in Children of Paradise, which he had just seen for the first time a week or so before; sparring over Buffalo Bill, a film we are far from appreciating to the degree he might have preferred; and coming decidedly to respect his way of standing by his work and his opinions where other Hollywood junketers often defer smarmily to the least suggestion of criticism. A day later and we might well have been worrying at the fascinating fiber of his auspicious debut. But for now, the interview of record must be Altman’s.

Altman had appeared a couple days earlier at the University of Washington, played off a packed Roethke Auditorium for an hour or so, charming one and all with his admission that he loves all his own movies, and vastly pleasing the (naturally) predominantly student audience with a laid-back attitude about film form and construction. An English prof (who happens to be a full-fledged film freak) tried to get him to comment on the suggestively rhymed imagery of the final tilt to the white sky in Nashville and Ned Buntline’s just winking away into the absolute blackness of the night late in Buffalo Bill, but it wasn’t the forum for that sort of thing and so the director just shrugged and said,

“Well ya have to tell the audience the picture’s over!” He got an even bigger laugh anticipating the final shot of 3 Women: “We’re just filming the outside of this house, see, and the people have all gone inside and you just hear them talking, and then I had to have enough footage to play the end credits over without going to a freezeframe, so it was getting a little dull and I said to the cameraman, ‘Pan over there,’ and there was this pile of tires, you’d never seen them in the film and I’d never noticed them before…”

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Review: It’s Raining in Santiago

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

A Franco-Bulgarian coproduction with Bulgaria standing in for Chilean locations, It’s Raining in Santiago seeks to reenact key events in the September 11, 1973, overthrow of the Allende regime, at the same time filling in crucial background from the time of Allende’s election as president several years before and, finally, taking a few glimpses at post-Allende Chile. Helvio Soto’s primary model is conspicuously, and understandably, Costa-Gavras. Like Costa-Gavras, Soto does not shrink from exploiting the turn-on value of high-octane melodramatic narrative in the interest of leftwing point-making. Like him, too, he keeps his camera, his cast, or both in motion as much as possible, knowing that at some primal, Panofskyan level this is satisfying to the moviewatcher who might otherwise be indisposed to sit still for either detailed exposition or political editorializing. His correct-minded good guys—notably Laurent Terzieff as a French correspondent, Ricardo Cucciolla (Vanzetti of Sacco and) as a Chilean newscaster turned presidential adviser, Maurice Garrel (the gaunt guerrilla veteran of Chabrol’s Nada) as a proletarian Allende man, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a socialist senator—are uncomplicatedly swell, sensitive, family-, friend- and music-loving folks; the leftist students have long hair but are clearly very well-washed; the militarist/bourgeois/corporate bad guys display not a glimmer of wit, originality, or subtlety (let alone the troublingly appealing ambiguity of Yves Montand’s pig-in-the-terrorist-poke in State of Siege, or even Marcel Bozzuffi’s dopey enthusiasm as the homosexual hitman in Z). Hence, even as “a John Wayne entertainment for the Left” (Costa-Gavras’ phrase), It’s Raining in Santiago soon begins to pall.

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Review: Star Wars

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Relevance has always been the great bugaboo of science fiction film. Among film genres, sf (“sci-fi” is a flippancy coined during the Fifties by people who took the genre less than seriously; those who know and love science fiction call it sf) has been a distinctly poor relation for the last several decades, sharing with hardcore pornography the obligation to have redeeming social value in order to be acceptable. Even when Westerns, swashbucklers, historical epics, war films, romances and those most improbable of fantasies, musicals, were allowed to justify themselves for entertainment’s sake, or for the sake of a well-crafted work, meaning and social relevance aside, the sf film had to teach a lesson if it was not to fall under suspicion of rotting young minds. It’s as if all those scientists existed to show us that we must not meddle in things man was not meant to know, and all those monsters and invaders came to teach us that we must use science wisely, or that we must trust in God, or in love, or in each other, or remain eternally vigilant against those who would destroy us from within.

The extent to which George Lucas’s Star Wars liberates an entire film genre from this stigma is signaled by the film’s tagline, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a way of saying that this film has nothing whatsoever to do with human life on earth, now or in the future. In making that clear, Lucas sets his film apart from every other science fiction film. But in setting aside the sf film tradition until now, and returning (might one call it “pre–Flash Gordonism”?) to the aboriginal wellsprings of mythic art, above the watershed where social relevance diverges from the course of pure fantasy (many call it “escapism”), Lucas nevertheless has had to acknowledge the influence of several generations of motion picture genres and styles on his new adventurism. If Star Wars celebrates its own freedom from the generic restrictions of Metropolis, Things to Come, The Thing, This Island Earth, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also commits itself to the tradition of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, James Bond. Lucas uses opticals that place us squarely in the world of the Republic serials; and an analysis of the structure of Star Wars reveals a seemingly insoluble crisis about every ten or twelve minutes, with appropriate combat scenes in between (it would be interesting to see how easily commercial breaks could be spaced into Star Wars for a TV run). The message, if there is one, is nothing more than that adventure is fun; exhilaration of the human spirit is enough to justify a work of entertainment or of art.

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Review: Sorcerer

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

William Friedkin’s last three films offer irresistible temptations to compare his work with that of other directors. John Frankenheimer made French Connection II, a sequel to the film for which Friedkin won an Oscar; and although the spinoff might not have been as well crafted a film as the parent, Frankenheimer’s work had vision and feeling, while Friedkin’s had little more than method. In the same way, John Boorman’s recent muddled effort Exorcist II: The Heretic, while undeniably one of the most monumentally dumb movies of all time, still shows itself to be infinitely more spirited, adventurous, and visually exciting than Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which relied on ugliness rather than personal involvement to create its spell of horror. Comes now Sorcerer, a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear in which Friedkin tries to go Clouzot one or two better, and hedges his bet by dedicating the film to the Frenchman. But for all the information Friedkin gives us about the background of the four social outcasts who come together on a dangerous mission hauling nitro through South American jungles, we never care about them. There’s no denying that some of the episodes are tooth-grindingly suspenseful; but again the tension does not spring from involvement with the characters. The French Connection, for all its borrowings from Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras, remains Friedkin’s best film, because in it he made no pretense of getting close to his characters, but kept his concern always with plot. At heart, the film was a police procedural, and paid off in much the same way that a Martin Beck novel does. The Exorcist and Sorcerer, by contrast, are simply inappropriate vehicles for Friedkin because they rely on audience involvement with the characters; and, try as he might, that’s the one thing Friedkin has never been able to bring off. Even in his more modest, pre-renown Boys in the Band, a more than serviceable cinematization of Mart Crowley’s play, any caring we do is brought about by the script, and one constantly senses Friedkin’s camera and staging fighting the intimacy that Crowley’s play cries out for.

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Ruggles of Red Gap: The Social Mythos of Leo McCarey

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

It is important in any extended discussion of Leo McCarey’s cinema to emphasize the significance of context in determining the specific value of certain motifs. In Duck Soup we are little inclined to condemn Rufus T. Firefly when he machine-guns his own troops; this disinclination is a function of the film’s artificial and farcical style. In My Son John, on the other hand, John Jefferson is machine-gunned to death gangland fashion, and we are clearly inclined to read the scene “realistically”: the act of murder is here to be condemned, as it was not in Duck Soup. I raise the issue because there is a tendency when dealing with McCarey to mistake metaphor for meaning—to assume, for example, that McCarey’s primary concern in Going My Way is to promote Catholicism. We could hardly describe the film as anti-Catholic, but it seems clear that the parish of St. Dominic serves a metaphoric function. It is a microcosmic “community,” a civilization in little, and McCarey uses it to make far more general and far more profound assertions about the nature of social freedom and social responsibility than would have been possible had the film been mere propaganda for a particular religious ideology.

Something similar, it seems to me, needs to be said about McCarey’s use of political metaphors. McCarey is frequently characterized as a defender of bourgeois/capitalist American democracy. And, to the extent that “democracy” serves as a powerful metaphor for social tolerance and flexibility, this is certainly true. But “America,” as a metaphoric social entity, is hardly immune in McCarey from those dangers of rigidity and complacency which beset and threaten St. Dominic’s (and hence civilization) in Going My Way. Witness, for example, Putting Pants on Philip, where Piedmont Mumblethunder’s overdeveloped sense of bourgeois self-importance is called into question by the European vitality of young Philip. Or consider the conflict between free enterprise and Christian charity in Good Sam: bourgeois capitalism (in the person of the owner of the department store where Sam works) hardly escapes unscathed. Indeed, as evidenced by Six of a Kind, The Milky Way, and Make Way for Tomorrow, the economic aspect of American democracy is generally presented by McCarey as being rigidly dedicated to the service of self-interest, and self-interest of any sort is anathema in McCarey when it conflicts with the rights and well-being of others. McCarey is thus for individuals; but individuals inevitably have social and familial responsibilities which disallow mere self-indulgence. Indeed, McCarey’s characters are often most truly themselves when they willingly put their selves at hazard (as in Once upon a Honeymoon).

All of which is relevant to Ruggles of Red Gap because Ruggles is arguably McCarey’s most personal, most social, and most idealistic film. Put another way, in Ruggles of Red Gap McCarey explores the relationship between personality and society, and does so in an idealistic literary context which asserts the essential identity of personal and social imperatives.

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Review: One on One

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Benson’s and Segal’s screenplay for One on One must have been particularly inviting to Lamont Johnson, combining as it does the interest in two-character confrontations that keynotes virtually all of the director’s work with the admiration for little-guys-who-become-winners-through-sheer-cussedness that Johnson exhibited in The Last American Hero. For me (and, I suspect, for Johnson, too), One on One is the quintessential Johnson film to date. In it, Johnson takes a delicate subject that many another director might easily have turned to syrup, and creates a dramatic, engaging, affecting story of determination and triumph. In the pre-credits prologue, opposition is established as the key motif of the film, as Johnson crosscuts from one side of the gym to the other during a high school basketball game, from one set of cheerleaders to the other, from the high school coach to a college coach who is there as a scout. Tension between opposing points of view or allegiances fighting for domination of the spirit of smalltown basketball star Henry Steele is already established for us even before the disparate viewpoints themselves are stated through dialogue.

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Review: The Spy Who Loved Me

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

We’d probably have to go back to the Fifties, when Hollywood first joined battle with television by offering lavish spectacles the small screen couldn’t match, to find out why commercial movies have recently become fixated on special effects and technology. The disaster films. along with Jaws and King Kong, helped set us up for Star Wars, in which the human actors are upstaged by robots. The Spy Who Loved Me, the latest James Bond film, is so overstuffed with mammoth sets and special effects, and so utterly lacking in human balance, that it falls right in with current trends. Like Star Wars, which has been called “subliminal propaganda for technology,” the new Bond makes you feel cool and powerful as you drive your car away from the theater; it may not be a space cruiser or a modified Lotus Esprit, but it will do. But do what, and how? James Bond’s present audience may have forgotten that the earlier films in the series, though already tending in this direction, also gave us a fleeting sense of our own power, not just of the power of machines. Boys watched Sean Connery as Bond, and the way he moved and talked and held himself, as if conscious of his own weight and strength, affected us almost subliminally, giving us a sense of what it meant to be a man. Connery has taken that side of the Bond films away with him—the “powerful masculine presence” (as Pauline Kael put it) which helped to humanize those well-oiled entertainment machines.

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Review: Lumière

[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.

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Out of the Past: Monsieur Verdoux

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

I can’t recall ever being so disappointed by a film.

I was surprised. After all, the black, cruel jokes Chaplin is so fond of tend to appeal to me more than the pathos; the true story of Henri Landru is a fascinating one; comedies of murder have often beguiled me, from Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets to Jack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady; and, of course, quite simply, Verdoux has an immense reputation. My appetite for it was whetted as far back as 1964, when I was a schoolboy and when Douglas McVay eulogized it in the November films & filming. A couple of years later, I read James Agee’s famous series of articles about the film and they impressed me as some of the finest criticism of any kind that I’d ever read, and I still feel that way. So my optimism, when BBC-TV gave the film its first-ever showing on British television in February of 1977, couldn’t have been higher.

I was left wishing James Agee had written and directed Monsieur Verdoux instead. Horrid as it is for a grown-up film buff to discover himself agreeing with Dwight Macdonald, I find Chaplin’s film a drab and essentially false achievement. Its philosophical ideas are not carried through with anything like sufficient rigour, and certainly not with the trenchant satire that might have made them work. The Sadean justification of murder (“Numbers sanctify…”) is, frankly, juvenile (since when did two wrongs make a right?), and is made more so by the insistence on what Chaplin would no doubt feel was “good taste.” It’s hard to feel the sting of death in this movie, partly because no one in it seems very much alive apart from the Martha Raye character, and partly because we are not given the horror of murder. The meaning of slaughter is far clearer in, say, Frenzy, where Hitchcock reverses the Bonnie and Clyde laugh-and-then-gasp trick, so that our revulsion for killer Bob Rusk turns, horribly but truthfully, into a kind of complicity. Our guilty mirth at Rusk’s struggles amidst the potatoes is a kind of fellow-feeling, and if we can recognize a little bit of ourselves in a murderous madman, then we might just possibly understand the darker side of human nature a little bit better. But with Monsieur Verdoux, we are denied ambiguities. Would we have any sympathy for Verdoux if we had actually seen him polishing off his unprepossessing spouses? I doubt it; and that is, I suspect, the main reason for Chaplin’s circumspection, whether consciously or not. He denies himself the hard part, skirts round the really tricky questions. Monsieur Verdoux becomes a figurehead for fuzzy ideas about morality and stops being a real human being. I didn’t sympathise with him a bit.

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