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Movietone News 58-59

In Black & White: Visionary Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

VISIONARY FILM. By P. Adams Sitney. Oxford University Press. 452 pages. $13.95.
ABSTRACT FILM AND BEYOND. By Malcolm LeGrice. The MIT Press. 160 pages. $12.50.
THE CUBIST CINEMA. By Standish D. Lawder. New York University Press. 265 pages. $11.75 (paperback).
THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA. Edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York University Press. 380 pages. $20 (paperback $8.95).
A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE CINEMA. The American Federation of the Arts. 176 pages. $5.95 (paperback).
STRUCTURAL FILM ANTHOLOGY. Edited by Peter Gidal. British Film Institute / New York Zoetrope. 140 pages. $2 (paperback).
COVER TO COVER. By Michael Snow. New York University Press. No pagination. $12.50 (paperback).

It’s not possible for me to give as fully authoritative a critique of these books as I would like—and that, as it happens, has a lot to do with my calling attention to them here. By and large, these volumes are concerned with films whose circulation and accessibility have not matched the critical interest which they have generated in print. Most of these films qualify as “underground” or “experimental” in a system of distribution and exhibition wherein the “mainstream” is limited almost exclusively to feature-length narrative films. I am perhaps as guilty as the next reviewer of concentrating on feature films with comparatively wide audience appeal, and yet for some time now I’ve found it rather odd that our views of film art and its history place so much emphasis on feature films and so little on short films and nonnarrative movies. Or, to focus the issue a little closer to the objects of this review: how is it that the American feature film, however rich and engaging, has inspired no book comparable to Sitney’s on “The American Avant-Garde”? and how is it that Sitney’s avant-garde, such a rich and engaging subject, can be such a dim entity for what I assume is the majority of even the most serious moviegoers? and how is it that the more radical forms of modernism seem to have less acceptance in film than in any other art form? Answers to these questions might embrace a variety of habits, assumptions, and circumstances. But the very existence of these books suggests that the “avant-garde” may be much harder to ignore in the future, particularly with respect to American and British cinema.

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Review: High Anxiety

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The consistency of Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie have served to make us forget how embarrassingly unfunny Mel Brooks can be when he’s off his feed. It’s a long, hard road to the first genuinely good laugh in High Anxiety; and, though the film picks up after that, it never gets consistently good. In this heavily promoted Hitchcock sendup, Brooks is on safe ground only when specifically kidding Hitchcock’s camera style—like the low-angle camera that watches two characters through a glass coffee table, but keeps losing them amid a jungle of cups, saucers, and trays; or the overhead shot that ends with everyone suddenly looking straight up at the camera; or the shot-for-shot parody of Psycho’s shower scene. There are a half-dozen or so delicious moments like these in the film; but when Brooks relies on dialogue for laughs he goes juvenile on us, choking off most of the laughs. In attempting to lampoon Hitchcock’s plotting and thematic content, all Brooks is able to do is reduce the elegant, dry wit of the Master of Suspense to pasty, cream-pie level. Typical of the film’s ubiquitous failures is the climactic scene, a fusion of the tower scene from Vertigo with the return of John Ballantine’s memory in Spellbound: the way the scene is shot—with an impossibly blond Madeline Kahn and an impeccably dressed Mel Brooks caught on the ancient stairs—is hilarious; but the dialogue is so absurdly puerile that the comedy is diluted to water-thinness. At its unfunniest, High Anxiety is embarrassingly, even boringly limp; at its funniest, it’s never as funny as Hitchcock’s own work. “A Mister MacGuffin called,” indeed!

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Review: The Turning Point

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Turning Point is a gentle, properly humble film whose joys are nearly always thespian rather than cinematic. The oohs and aahs that have marked response to this film in just about every quarter are pitiable, since they only serve to overrate the film and prepare the viewer for disappointment. Audiences may find themselves feeling that they are expected to like it, because it is about serious art, because it is self-consciously ambitious, and not because of its smallness, which to me is the best thing about the film. It is precisely the film’s ability to be about so many things in a small way that makes it attractive. Its meandering plotline and gratuitous “relevance” are the mark of a kitchen-sink approach to psychology and moralism; and the film’s most obnoxious trait is the tendency of its characters toward ponderous self-analysis and constant moral summation, distinctly remote from the province of most people’s daily behavior.

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Review: Thunder and Lightning

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Corey Allen is best remembered as the Nick Ray actor whose sleeve got hung up on a car door handle during the chickie run in Rebel without a Cause. Last year he directed a Roger Corman programmer about moonshiners and badder cats in the B-movie South where cheerful corruption is about as plentiful and as conspicuous as sweat on a fat red neck. It was called Thunder and Lightning and, to the best of my knowledge, it never saw service in the greater Seattle area until this summer, when it was laid on as second feature to another 20th Century–Fox release with revving engines in it, The Driver. I trust no one will be overprimed with anticipation if I suggest that Thunder and Lightning is probably the most slaphappily endearing low comedy since Russ Meyer’s The Seven Minutes; on the other hand, other self-flattering slummers like me who can handle that sort of endorsement are advised to file the title away and take note of it if and when it fills out another double bill in the future.

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Review: Bobby Deerfield

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Sydney Pollack has carted the same thematic luggage down the road so consistently that running a standard, connect-the-dots literary tracer through his feature works is relatively easy. Pollack has concerned himself not so much with issues of death as with things that are dead, or so close to death that there is no appreciable difference. His films imply that rigor mortis set in long before the scenario began, and will spread after the last reel. To his credit, the repackaging of the principal components of this tragic vision has always been fresh. We’ve had the opportunity to see Pollack’s marked men and women slowly die while slavishly and knowingly dressing up the cancer of a metaphorical promise (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), through the ultimate victimization of human relationships by virtue of living in vulgar, extremist times (The Way We Were) or by a contagion of paranoiac losses (Three Days of the Condor).

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“It’s time to come inside now” – An appreciation of Robert Altman’s “3 Women”

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

1969: That Cold Day in the Park: Lazslo Kovacs’s camera bridges one sequence to another with frequent use of focus-in/blur-out visuals, stylistically underscoring the film’s dual theme: the ambiguity and the dissolution of personality. It’s a film whose greatest strength lies in its atmosphere. Altman’s and Kovacs’s command and treatment of space, light, and movement transfix the viewer, claw at his awareness, even while the story itself ultimately disappoints through lack of credibility or interior logic.

Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule in 3 Women
Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in “3 Women”

Sandy Dennis—in one of the better performances of her career, possibly the only one to take full advantage of her unique blend of naïve vulnerability and cloying obnoxiousness—plays a well-off Vancouver spinster, growing to confront the loneliness to which she has found herself condemned. One day she invites a young man in out of the rain, begins to mother him, and gradually imprisons him a la The Collector. The boy (Michael Burns) doesn’t speak to her, though it is clear he can hear and understand what she is saying; she talks incessantly, delighted to have a listener, someone to care for—someone apparently worse off than her. She treats the boy increasingly as a pet, working toward the moment when she can make him he—willing or unwilling—consort. His silence to her—later revealed to us as a game he often plays with people—serves to stress her loneliness, to provide an almost clinical ear to which she is encouraged to reveal far more than she would to a responsive listener.

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Review: Eraserhead

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

While an attendant whose deformed face and skin make him look like the Elephant Man pulls levers like those that start an amusement park ride, an ectoplasmic spermatozoon plunges squirming into a pool, making its way toward a globe that gradually crumbles, until we take the viewpoint of that globe and find ourselves sliding through a hair-rimmed aperture into a bright white beyond. Conception and birth, right? But of what?

Every time you think you’ve got hold of Eraserhead, you haven’t. A curly-haired macrocephalic strolls zombielike through a surreal landscape that is both identifiably urban and suggestively a macrophotograph of some portion of human anatomy. Lights come on but don’t light anything up; the bars of a radiator part like curtains to reveal a dancing woman on a tile stage; a manmade roast chicken no bigger than a fist squirms and bleeds when someone tries to carve it; a man and woman live with their hideous birdlike baby in a dingy flat whose floors and shelves are covered with some tangled, decaying fibrous matter—all of this against a soundtrack of incessant pounding, hissing, squeaking noises, and in the most frightfully claustrophobic black-and-white you’ve ever seen.

If you really give yourself to the film (and there’s a point beyond which it’s pretty hard not to), you pretty soon find yourself shifting a little, seeking out the reassuring glow of the exit light or suppressing the impulse to say to your neighbor “I gotta find some way outta here!” I don’t subscribe to the notion that seeing a film—or any work of art—can damage the viewer; but if anyone could demonstrably suffer permanent damage from seeing a film, there’s a good chance that the film would be Eraserhead. I saw it, and count myself among the walking wounded. The film makes all other so-called “dream” films pale by comparison: it is the most thoroughly oneiric—in fact, literally nightmarish—film I’ve ever seen: vivid, disorienting, captivating, stirring in me terrors whose names I don’t even know. From the field of the personal (or “underground”) film, where there is so much self-indulgent crap, and so much more careless fakery, Eraserhead emerges as a truly subversive film. It gets personal with the viewer in ways so intimate, so embedded in the private recesses of consciousness you wouldn’t have thought it possible. Who is this David Lynch and how does he know? This is what madness might be like, he makes you think, this oppressive absurdity, now funny, now scary, now just plain weird, but making a kind of sense that has nothing at all to do with reason. Believe it: Eraserhead is The Real Thing.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

ERASERHEAD
Direction, screenplay, special effects, editing, production: David Lynch. Camera and lighting: Fred Elmes, Herbert Caldwell.
The players: John Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.

Review: Bahia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Bahia both is and isn’t the kind of film you’d expect from the maker of Black Orpheus. Like the earlier film, it was made in Brazil and focuses on a society of New World blacks; it is intimately bound up with music and with the joyous dance of life; it boasts sharp National Geographic–style color photography, and a loving sensitivity to the beauty of nature and of the human face; at every turn it stresses rebirth and affirmation, emphasizing the universal human values that are implicit in its amalgam of Christian and Bahian myth. But unlike Black Orpheus, Camus’s newest film is almost structureless, more a freewheeling anthology of vignettes involving the same group of characters than a singleminded narrative film.

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Out of the Past: Otley

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Asked to name the absolute quintessence of the late-1960s film hero, whom would you choose? Benjamin Braddock? Antoine Doinel? Cool Hand Luke? Rooster Cogburn? Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid? Frank Bullitt? Wyatt or Billy from Easy Rider? My vote would go to none of these, but to Gerald Arthur Otley, the eponymous hero (played so superlatively well by Tom Courtenay) of Dick Clement’s dazzling first feature. Otley has all the wariness, all the coward’s cunning, all the what’s-in-it-for-me cynicism of the man in the 1969 street; but he also has the quick wit of the born survivor, the good luck of the sainted schlemiel who always somehow stumbles through, the street kid’s celerity in taking advantage of a sudden change in situation and the resilience of the eternally befuddled, but also eternally cocky, “little man” who gets by as much because of his smallness as his manhood. Otley is a thief, a rogue, a liar, a scrounger, a seducer of other men’s wives, and he’s no good at any of these things, and not much good at anything much else either, not even at being the layabout he so naturally is. But he has no malice in him and he loves life, even as it baffles and overlooks him.

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Review: Julia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Whatever Lillian Hellman’s attitude about herself may be—in Pentimento and elsewhere—Fred Zinnemann’s Julia is at pains to glamorize her. Not only is she played by a woman much more attractive than she ever was; her struggling pre-fame days are also recounted in glossy, romantic terms that revere her (with the comfort of hindsight) as a famous, successful playwright, as the mistress of a famous writer, and as a courageous ur-liberal who performs a daring anti-fascist act long before it became fashionable even to be anti-fascist. There is no denying that the self-congratulatory tone that seeps into Hellman’s monologue and dialogue in Julia is already present in Pentimento; and Jane Fonda has brought off a splendid achievement in portraying the young Lillian Hellman not as the young Lillian Hellman but as the older Lillian Hellman’s impression of her younger self.

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Review: Eyes of Laura Mars

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Give Jon Peters full credit, he’s honest with his audience. At the beginning of A Star Is Born a voice called out advising “all you assholes out there” that the show wasn’t about to get under way until everyone quieted down, and Jon’n’Barbra proceeded to treat their public accordingly for the rest of the film (not that a goodly portion of the public seemed to mind: “Gee, Barbra called me an asshole!—I have arrived!”). Peters’ credit on Eyes of Laura Mars is preceded by a spacey model’s muttering “Guh-ross!” Yes, my dear, Eyesof LauraMarsis pretty gross and, in deference to memories of the good films director Irvin Kershner once made, I’d prefer to lay most of the blame at Peters’ door.

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“Directing doesn’t start on the floor”: Claude Goretta and Isabelle Huppert Interviewed

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Lacemaker (La Dentellière) was shown in the 1977 New York Film Festival. Claude Goretta, the director, and Isabelle Huppert, who costarred with Yves Beneyton, were interviewed before the film had opened commercially. The Lacemaker is the story of a young girl, employed at a beauty parlor, who falls in love with a student very different from her in aspirations and in intellect. The affair fails and the girl is left suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown.

Judith M. Kass: In the films of yours that have played here, The Invitation and The Wonderful Crook (Pas si méchant que ça…), events give the appearance of going along well and then something happens to disrupt the order. Does the idea of change causing social and personal disruption interest you particularly?

Isabelle Hupper in The Lacemaker
Isabelle Huppert in "The Lacemaker"

Claude Goretta: What interests me is the idea of common lives which can show us that people are deep inside a situation in which they can express something else, something the others don’t see. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t always have the means of expressing their sensibility. In The Invitation the people show the others very little of themselves. They have a richness inside that others don’t notice. And the problem for me as the director is to show the audience that the people on the screen are much more interesting than what they show to the others. It’s the problem of “the lacemaker.” She’s a girl without culture and she’s naturally silent. And people today, facing this sort of character, take the silence as a denial and not as a way of accepting the world. They think the silence is something against them. The problem of the student is that he has a theoretical idea of life and no experience at all. He can’t have a fundamental communication with the girl because he lacks experience of life. He’s not a bad boy; he’s not worse than the others. But this experience is a flop for him because of his youth. For me, the students are caught in a sort of closed world. Their generosity, all the high ideals of life, are theoretical. When they are confronted with real life, it’s quite different. I think in our lives we always have been either somebody’s lacemaker or somebody’s François [the student]. But we are always responsible for somebody else, but we don’t know it sometimes—that we are responsible for the other.

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Review: Salò

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Updating the setting of de Sade’s novel, Pasolini’s Salò proposes that in the final months of fascist rule in northern Italy a quartet of authorities (a noble, an administrator, a banker, and a monsignor) sign a pact, intermarry with one another’s daughters to ensure solidarity, systematically capture the most attractive children of their political enemies, and spirit them away to a country manor house, there to subject them to unspeakable indignities in their unrestrained pursuit of perverse pleasure, from masturbation and sodomy, through coprophagia, to torture and death. Though the power of the film’s images might be easily achieved, simply by evoking the inherent shock of the acts depicted, nevertheless, power there is, in abundance, and Salò does not slip easily (or ever) out of one’s mind. Is the violent reaction against Salò that has occurred in this country a reaction against the acts that it depicts, against the (patently faked) depictions themselves, or against the fact of that depiction, the very idea that someone should make a movie about such things?

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Houses, Phones and Cars: Domestic Spaces in Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment”

By Norman Hale

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.

James Mason and Joan Bennett pose

While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—The Reckless Moment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.

By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.

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Review: Straight Time / Short Eyes

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

I saw Straight Time on a double feature, and didn’t know quite what to make of it. Next day, I remembered the second feature vividly and Straight Time almost not at all. Yet I had trouble finding anything specifically wrong with this Chinese dinner of a movie. It’s cleanly made, easy to watch, competently acted—three of the supporting roles are splendidly played: parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), suburbanite crime-dabbler Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), and disturbed ex-con and family man Willy Darin (Gary Busey)—and never less than interesting. Yet in the end it contributes nothing in story or style that seems to add to the currently fashionable dialogue about rehabilitation and recidivism. If there is nothing especially faulty or offensive about the film, neither is there anything outstanding or affecting about it; and it’s that terminal blandness that finally kills Straight Time for me.

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