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Movietone News 56

Review: Suspiria

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

As the credits of Suspiria roll, a voice, disembodied as any of the English-language ghosts who dub foreign pictures for U.S. release, supplies us with a little background information. It seems this American girl (Jessica Harper) is an American, and she’s decided to go to Europe to study dance at some strange academy in Germany; to get there, she takes a plane, and when the plane lands at a German airport, she gets off it and then she’s there in Germany. Well, yes: watch about thirty seconds of the movie proper and you learn all that for yourself. Why the helpful hints straining to be heard under the aural barrage of what will continue to be almost nonstop musical accompaniment by some group called The Goblins? Well, probably somebody at Twentieth Century Fox, after buying the film, noticed that it rarely made much sense on a scenario level and so hoped to start the audience off on redundantly sure footing before everything started going really haywire.

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Review: Black and White in Color

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

As the title suggests, Black and White in Color is a film that is deliberately conscious of its medium. In fact, the style of the film is an easy index of its approach to the problems it seeks to address: most of the shots use a long lens, with a narrow depth of field, creating virtually a whole film in portrait-style close, medium-close, and mid-shot compositions with a sharp focus on the central subject, but with hazy background or Limbo for a milieu. This is the stuff of bigger-than-life cinematic caricature; and despite the film’s bows to the complexity of issues involved here (military vs. civilian, officer vs. noncom, ruling class vs. bourgeoisie, civilization vs. savagery). it really does end up treating its characters and their ways of life as matters of black-and-white. Who would have thought, in 1977, that someone still thinks it is significant satire to show sanctimonious priests in the trenches assuring soldiers that “God is on our side”? Or to show a white man enjoying a quaint native song that, when translated, proves to be a litany of insults to the white man? How original an anti-war statement is it to have a group of civilians stage a Renoiresque picnic on the edge of the battlefield, cautioning one another not to “get too close”? The idea of the film is itself the stuff of which heavyhanded allegory is made: the staging of World War I in miniature between French colonists at Fort Coulais, Ivory Coast, and German colonists at a nearby outpost.

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Review: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Children have joined the cinema’s minorities, what with Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, Taxi Driver, Small Change, Bugsy Malone et al.; and if the movement has an on-screen leader it’s surely the extraordinary Jodie Foster. What, one wonders, will happen to this child in the next few years? Will the movies destroy her or will she prove too tough? Will she have a decent teens in spite of the media circus surrounding her? Her interviews reveal a bright, thoroughly sensible girl, and one keeps one’s fingers crossed.

The Canadian-made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane isn’t the best film of her career to date, but it’s the most thought-provoking. Where do director Nicholas Gessner and scenarist Laird Koenig (who adapts his own novel with few changes) stand in relation to Rynn Jacobs, their 13-year-old heroine, played so superlatively well by Foster? Rynn is an intellectual child trying to live on her own, independent of family, school boards, adoption agencies or anyone else. Her father has taught her to avoid “them”, warning her of embourgeoisment; but now he’s dead (although nobody knows it but her) and she has to stand on her own against the forces of officialdom in the small New England town down the road from the lonely Jacobs house. She also, more pressingly, has to stand against the paedophile son (Martin Sheen) of a local bigwig. And what’s her answer? Death. Rynn has, before film’s start, polished off her own unpleasant mother with cyanide and stashed the corpse in the cellar. The bigwig—an inquisitive, patronising, rich and anti-Semitic real-estate lady (Alexis Smith), powerful on many a local committee—perishes quite accidentally when investigating unlawfully. The son finds evidence, tries blackmail and, at film’s end, notices too late the scent of bitter almonds emanating from his teacup. As he coughs and splutters, the camera just holds and holds and holds on Rynn’s angelic face, and the credits come up over it slowly, all the time without her so much as blinking.

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The Devil’s Parties

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Who’s the biggest box-office star at the moment? Not Redford, not Newman, not Eastwood, but, it would seem, the Prince of Darkness, whose presence in or on the periphery of a large number of popular movies in recent years has led to what Variety might call a Beelzebub boffola. And why? Look to the times: devil movies are not a portent of impending Armageddon, as the originator of The Omen would have us believe, but a result. World crises in the Seventies have implied that we may well be merrily off to hell, in metaphorical terms, and it’s nothing unusual for movies to take such phrases literally. Putting it bluntly, devil movies offer a kind of reassuring disturbance. They give us something apart from the grim realities of life to worry about.

It’s an old trick. Chinatown had the citizens of L.A. suffering from a largely invented drought, and their concern with it diverted their attention from what was really going on. When a real drought hit Great Britain in 1976, everyone had a wonderful time worrying about it, encouraged by their political masters, who were glad of a breathing space in which to tackle the actually rather more pressing problems of the pound. Britain didn’t actually die of thirst or turn into Death Valley, but it was a popular summer madness trying to figure out what might happen. The big thing was that it was a danger from outside. It wasn’t our fault. There was no way we could stop the onslaught of unimagined terrors, but we might conceivably blame people for such mundane and equally depressing (more depressing) things as unemployment, strikes, political corruption, and the balance of payments. Whenever a society is in big trouble, as Western society certainly is right now, it’s vital for the public to find all manner of bogeymen on which to vent its otherwise quite impotent wrath.

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Review: Damnation Alley

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

The gripping first few sequences of Damnation Alley are linked by slow-fade-to-black/ slow-fade-in interludes reminiscent of the time-passes-things-change ambience of 2001: A Space Odyssey; but the aimlessness of inconclusive ideas and what passes for special visual effects leave this new day-after-Doomsday thriller well out of the running in comparison with Kubrick’s masterpiece. There are pretensions aplenty, but the film tends to hinge on crucial assumptions that remain unexplained. The city of Albany, New York, survives as an unscathed verdant oasis through a massive nuclear strike that destroys most of the United States, and furious ecological disasters that follow; there is no evidence of radiation sickness in any of the survivors, despite the fact that they go outside only weeks after the holocaust. More trivial questions bother the mind as well, such as why Air Force Major Eugene Denton’s white shirt stays spotless throughout a cross-country odyssey involving tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, firestorms, and combat with mountain men left over from Deliverance and cockroaches left over from Bug. The pictures bother the eye the same way. Spectacular color effects are virtually ruined by brutally mismatched film stocks, painfully obvious composite splits, shaky rear-projection, unsteady matte lines. The disorienting effect created is quite different from the one that was apparently intended.

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Review: Equus

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Sidney Lumet was just the right director for Equus, and just the wrong one. His certified ability to entice performances of considerable force — if not always precision and coherence — is invaluable to the film version of a play that, however much “opened up” for the screen, still depends to an extraordinary degree on the impact of actor on audience, and on his fellow players, for that matter. Equus is reasonably satisfying to watch as a collection of actor’s-moments, but only in a negative sense can it be discussed as a movie, and this is where Lumet’s essential wrongness for the project comes in. Peter Shaffer’s Equus, like brother Anthony’s Sleuth, is a highly stylized construct whose primary raison-d’etre is to provide a theatrical battle zone for a couple of skilled actors. A honey of a conceit lies at the heart of the piece, a point of convergence where sexual urgency and Christian iconography and primitive, almost primeval mystic rite overlap, intertwine, crossrefer, and get mixed up and mutated every which way, with man-on-horseback-as-godhead and man-and-woman-as-one-flesh setting up irresistibly resonant imagistic and conceptual rhymes. Pretty heavy, yes/no? Mm, could be, sure: sex and God and identity-crisis — that’s heavy-artillery stuff in anyone’s canon. But the fact is that Shaffer’s points and paradoxes are readily perceptible and paraphrasable about ten minutes into the picture, and prove to be several degrees less-sophisticated than “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane. But whereas Welles needed Rosebud only as a pretext, and could dispose of it with an ironic fillip about thirty seconds before the end of his movie, Shaffer/Lumet must keep the same not-so-multifaceted sparkler twirling for the duration of their show. And that they have chosen to let psychiatrist Richard Burton periodically pour out his anguish — and suggest a few interpretive glosses — direct to the audience only exacerbates the sense of desperately limited ideational resources being wrung drier than dry.

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Review: Jabberwocky

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

We sometimes say that comedy is a very serious business, and we’re right; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make us laugh. Comedy is serious when it makes us laugh in an important way, at something—whether big or dangerous or overrated—with which we can deal more easily once we’ve laughed. Annie Hall brought humor out of things that cause people great pain, and those who love the movie seem to value their laughter very highly, as a kind of liberation: as a friend put it, “Annie Hall may do for neurotics what Rocky did for everybody else.” But the laughter is crucial, and unfunny comedy is just depressing.

In Jabberwocky, for instance, we may be taken with the way Terry Gilliam has cast an attack by medieval dragon in the first-person mode of Jaws and King Kong—complete with tuneless, throbbing background music—or with his satiric images of life in the Middle Ages, which look like the work of a wicked 19th-century cartoonist. We may laugh in spite of ourselves the first time the innocent-abroad hero, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), is accidentally peed upon—likewise when garbage is thrown on him or he falls into a manure pile—but it’s hard to laugh the second or third times: we can take only so much offal humor at a sitting. Cooper’s grotesquely fat lady love Griselda, sitting on her lake porch munching placidly on a raw potato, may strike us as a marvelous creation, until we realize how little will be done with her; that first glimpse contains everything we’re given to laugh at through every one of her appearances.

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