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Movietone News 58-59

Review: Saturday Night Fever

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

In intent and intensity, Saturday Night Fever falls somewhere between West Side Story and Mean Streets. The former film is specifically evoked by the dwelling on Romeo and Juliet. When disco king Tony Manero takes his prospective dance-contest partner Stephanie Mangano out to tea, she plays a humiliation game with him, saying that though their origins are the same, she is now of a different kind, and implying that she is too good for him. The lovers aren’t exactly star-crossed, but they have their share of differences to overcome; and contrary to what Stephanie would like to believe, the inadequacies aren’t all on Tony’s side. After all, wondering why Romeo was so quick to take the poison is a valid response to Romeo and Juliet—much more so than her tossed-off response that “That’s the way they did it in those days.”

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STOP – and be friendly: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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

As everyone must know by now, the title of Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction extravaganza refers to an actual meeting with an extraterrestrial visitant; or, as the advertising more directly puts it, “contact.” “Contact” is very much what the movie is all about. No film since 2001: A Space Odyssey has applied E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” dictum so spectacularly. Explanations are unimportant, but understanding, intuitive and visceral, is paramount. Like 2001, Close Encounters is a stunning visual experience (both films feature the dazzling work of special effects man Douglas Trumbull, who also directed the excellent Silent Running in 1972); if it’s intellectually less profound, it has a more direct appeal to the emotions, and whether or not it’s in the same league as Kubrick’s masterpiece couldn’t concern me less. In other words, it’s good enough, for all Kubrick’s obvious influence on it, to stand on its own as a classic of the science-fiction genre, and also outside any genre considerations. And there aren’t many s-f films you can say that about.

Rumour has it that Spielberg planned to end the film by using “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the hit song from Disney’s cartoon Pinocchio, as the tune behind the closing credits.* It’s as well he didn’t; that would be spelling things out, which the film elsewhere avoids admirably, and also a touch twee. But it gives a hint of one of the film’s main aspects. It’s a magical movie, a film that exults in the potency of cinema, in the type of experience you can get only from a film, in the tools whereby a filmmaker can excite, entice and provoke his audience. And thus it becomes a film about films, and also about filmmaking. One of Spielberg’s leading actors (taking, indeed, nearly all the acting honours going) is François Truffaut, the artist as actor as critic, the man who not only came up with the longest-ever Hitchcock interview, but also once suggested that Howard Hawks’s big-game-catcher movie Hatari! was secretly an essay on the topic of filmmaking. A similar interpretation of Close Encounters holds a lot of water. When, at the film’s climax, Truffaut marshals enormous human and technical resources, shouting “Plus vite!” and “Allez!” whilst striding to and fro and waving his arms, he is, to all intents and purposes, a director controlling a set, the biggest in film history.

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Review: The Driver

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

The Driver is a study in dogged auteurism in which screenwriter-become-director Walter Hill seeks to reclaim his own. Anyone who has seen the Hill-scripted The Thief Who Came to Dinner (directed by Bud Yorkin) and The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah) will be hard-pressed to ignore that the new picture doubles back over much the same ground. In itself this would not necessarily amount to a bad thing; variations on themes, characters, and situations are, after all, very much a part of the auteur bag, and echoes, even repetitions, are key evidence in tracing an artist’s signature. If the auteur in question reduplicates his previous efforts too closely, hallmark may become cliché. If, on the other hand, he shuffles the deck thoroughly, turns old options on their heads, tests the assumptions and conditions in previous works, he continues to be worth watching, has room in which to grow and the courage to make use of it.

The Driver doesn’t exemplify either of these possibilities, exactly. As a director, Hill is neither a transplanted TV traffic manager like Yorkin nor a first-rank cineaste like Peckinpah, but a unique and still-formative talent; it’s entirely appropriate that he should recycle those Hill materials we initially met at second hand, and see whether he can give them fresh life, the precise form of life he may have wanted them to have in the first place. Yet the material fails to gain in freshness—indeed, it is very nearly wrung dry—and one reason for this seems to be that there’s nothing, no intervening sensibility, for it to push against.

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Review: Céline and Julie Go Boating

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

Céline and Julie Go Boating just may bring Jacques Rivette from the background to the foreground in the continuing history of French New Wave directors. Rivette is another of the Cahiers du cinéma writers who made his way from critic to director but, at least until now, has remained something of an unknown quantity, more mentioned than seen. Commercial and legal difficulties with his first two films (Paris Belongs to Us, 1958-60, and The Nun, 1962) meant that his movies were discussed by European observers long before they were shown (and then only briefly) in this country. His films since then have been extraordinarily long (Spectre runs 13 hours; Out One, a much shorter assemblage from the same footage, still runs four hours) and that may have a lot to do with the apparent lack of circulation accorded L’Amour fou, a four-hour Rivette which has had a U.S. distributor for some time but scant bookings.

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Getting What You Need: Changing Surrealist Vision in Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien Andalou,” “Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie,” and “That Obscure Object Of Desire”

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

by Julie Ahrens

Seeing ants crawl from a hole in a man’s hand, we don’t need to ask, “Is it a dream or is it real?” It’s surreal. That one creepy, iconic image is the essence of surrealism.

In 1928 Luis Buñuel, the man with the razor, opened his viewers’ eyes to middle-class amorality, complacency and sexual frustration with his first film, Un Chien Andalou. This film, made at the height of the Surrealist movement in France with Salvador Dalí­, is representative of surrealism in its overt use of dreamlike images – and ants – presented without rational order or meaning. Born out of 19th-century Romanticism and influenced by Freud’s investigations into subconscious mental processes, the images of surrealist art were intended to pass directly from the subconscious mind of the artist to that of the viewer with a minimum of logical reasoning. Un Chien Andalou consists wholly of bizarre, unreal images, and the viewer is continually aware of being suspended in a dream landscape.

The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"
The man with the razor: "Un Chien Andalou"

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel’s 1972 attack on the inane privileged classes, does not appear as purely surrealistic as his first film. Here Buñuel divides the world into the “reality” of six friends’ attempt to have dinner together, and the twisted tales of dreams and dreams-within-dreams that interrupt and underlie their outward social niceties. Although we are not quite able to distinguish where it lies, we know there is a dividing line between the dream and the reality in The Discreet Charm. This barrier is crossed every time a character begins a story of a dream he has had, or is suddenly awakened to reveal that a preceding sequence was actually a dream. Buñuel punctuates the outwardly placid, yet inwardly violent, bourgeois aims with timeless shots of the group walking along a road. At first there seem to be clear divisions between fantasy and reality, yet it finally becomes apparent that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.

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Review: An Unmarried Woman

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

This is the first Paul Mazursky film I’ve really liked. I haven’t seen them all, but what I have thought of Mazursky until now had a lot to do with the kind of people and topics he makes films about, and with his frustratingly ambivalent view toward them. He sees the satirical possibilities in the fads and fancies of the upwardly mobile, hip middle class, and anticipates the audience’s skeptical “What kind of problems could they have?” disposition; yet he also cares very much about these people, and tends to celebrate the same things he satirizes. Nothing wrong in that, certainly: Altman did the same in Nashville. The big difference—and it dates all the way back to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—is that what Mazursky sees at the heart of a meaningful existence in contemporary America is ultimately much thinner than what an Altman or a Michael Ritchie sees, and relies chiefly on touchy-feely trends and fads, honestandopen platitudes, nothing with the feel of solid human truth. An Erica Benton, cast off by her husband in any other time but 1978, would likely respond completely differently, seek different solutions to her problems, and behave in a different way. I wonder whether Mazursky would still redeem her, and if he could get away with doing it in the same way.

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Review: Communion (Alice, Sweet Alice)

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

I don’t know anything about Alfred Sole beyond the fact that he has described himself as “a good Catholic boy,” and barely a single name on either side of the cameras in this extraordinary film of his was familiar to me (though I recognized bald-headed, bespectacled Gary Allen as having previously been one of the eight dead murderers making life tough for Cristina Raines in The Sentinel). But I suspect we’ll hear a good deal more of Sole in future. Communion is a classy chiller on a low budget, and a celebration of cinema at its noirest. The filmmaker Sole most obviously seeks comparison with is that other good Catholic boy named Alfred, but there are several additional big names exercising a powerful influence, too.

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Review: The Chosen

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

There’s a sharply defined moment at which The Chosen goes bad: just past the halfway point of the film, when the mad logic that has been carefully built up through imagery and coincidence convinces us that one of the film’s characters really is the Antichrist; and then, suddenly, a belated red herring is introduced, and we are asked to spend the next two reels identifying with the impossibly misplaced judgment of our hero who, having as much information as we do, has no excuse for being wrong. You see this kind of thing a lot in giallo and Italian horror. It’s a critical error, and because of it, The Chosen ends up a disappointment. Yet there’s a lot of promise in the film, particularly its first half; and it is superior in almost every way to the film of which, at first glance, it appears to be merely a cheap imitation: The Omen.

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Review: Coma

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

I have this fear of doctors. I don’t know whether it comes from a low pain threshold or from years of horror movies. I thought the only genuinely scary scene in The Exorcist was Regan’s spinal tap operation. So Coma was halfway home with me before it ever started: I came ready to be scared to death, knowing that the film’s milieu alone would be enough to do it. Even so, Crichton didn’t really score as many frissons as he might have; and the film ends up a minus rather than a plus, chiefly because of a storyline more devoted to its red herrings than to its corrosive moral implications. The early sequences place us firmly in a world of moral dilemmas, questions that promise some kind of integral relevance to the ordeal we know must come. How far can a woman distance herself from a man in the name of independence before she ceases to be a reasonable, loving human being? How embroiled in hospital administration politics does a young doctor become before he loses sight of the humanism of his calling? What is death? Who should play God? Is abortion for reasons of personal convenience a moral action? … But except for the whodunit’s guilty party’s speech, toward the end, about how “someone has to make these decisions,” the film’s goings-on are never effectively related to the moral questions that abound in its universe.

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Review: Coup pour coup

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

Ken Eisler was a friend of MOVIETONE NEWS from the spring of 1973, when he dropped down from his Vancouver, B.C. home for a few days and happened on some back issues while browsing in a Capitol Hill bookstore. He wrote us a flattering note (MTN 24), and swiftly became both a regular Contributing Writer (his MTN 29 quickie of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, written after a Mexico City viewing, may well have been the first English-language notice of that masterpiece) and a personal friend. In 1976 Ken relocated in Seattle and began participating in Seattle Film Society activities; he was elected to the SFS Board of Directors in 1977. Then, changes in work and life schedules forced him to step down from the Board, and prevented him from maintaining the constancy of contact we—and his MTN readers—might have wished for. Ken died early in the morning of April 24, 1978. Only a few days before, he had sent us this, his first writing for MOVIETONE NEWS in nearly a year. [—RTJ]

“Shut it down!” the university students used to chant. The image of a factory being shut down is conveyed in Coup pour coupby a series of quick cuts breathtaking in their economy. What’s more extraordinary about this seven-year-old film, screened here recently on the UW campus as an International Women’s Day event, is its success in conveying the ebb and flow of life within the worker-occupied factory after the shutdown. The filmmakers haven’t confined themselves to any single technique or point of view in doing this. Sometimes we see things “objectively” from a narrative vantage: we watch the women, inside the factory, preparing to repel a police onslaught, or giving complicated baby-care instructions at the padlocked front gate to hapless husbands (“…and then you can have your morning coffee!”), or finally—in disgust at the husbands’ grumbling ineptitude—setting up their own daycare center in what may have been the boardroom. In a very affecting passage a young woman who was first seen arriving home after a long demeaning day’s work—trudging up the steps with her pesky kids, glumly settling herself and them into the routines of another solitary apartment-pent night—is now seen sitting relaxed and happy against a wall, her thoughts spoken on the soundtrack (“Before this, it was ‘hullo, g’bye’ … I was nothing…”). Once in a while a camera placement or movement makes a particularly privileged point, as when the deadly repressive routine of the factory assembly line is broken by a young woman’s desperate outburst (a “nervous fit,” the foreman calls it), and the supervisory people’s angry attempts at restraint only add fuel to her fire. Other women cease work and come away from their machines to gather around the young woman in distress, pushing the supervisors out of the way. When their sympathy and support have calmed her baffled rage, the group, with her in the center, moves off laterally across and out of the frame. The camera remains where it is, though, so we’re left looking at who was behind that warm, turbulent group: “Sourpuss,” the female foreman with the pinched, angry face and unyielding posture. The continuity of the narrative is broken by songs, too. In one sequence the factory women joyfully improvise a cabaret song about their working conditions, the struggle, the boss, their husbands—their lives. The impromptu rhymed words are funny and revealing; and the hesitant or bold, quick or slow style in which contributions are made sometimes reinforces, sometimes changes our notion (and their own) of their personalities. Élodie, the oldest worker, has already shown an unexpected glint of malicious mischief in dealing with the foreman “Sourpuss.” In an Agincourt-flavored night scene before the police attack, she flowers into a wonderful old song celebrating the joys of tobacco, delighting the other women and then following up with some historical perspective on the present action, at their request, via reminiscences of a legendary 1936 strike.

What we’re watching is a film about that potentially clichéd subject, the raising of consciousness. Factory boss Boursac does make a satisfyingly Eisensteinian target for a “militant” film, with his tinted glasses, his ramrod pride, his deviousness, his black suit and homburg; and it’s peculiarly gratifying to see him standing frozen-faced, surrounded by gleefully disrespectful women workers in the cage of an old-fashioned cable-drawn barred elevator or a glass enclosure where, a hungry hostage with a bursting bladder, he’s taunted by the very barbarians his supervisory minions customarily surveyed coldly (time-is-money) from their glass-enclosed eyries. But it’s the changes in the women’s sense of themselves that really count here: changes in perspective. And from this point of view the most mysteriously moving shots in the film are those recurrent high-angle, distant views of the factory itself, set against town and countryside: late-afternoon sun glinting off blank windows … a bird flying across the frame … smoke rising languorously from chimneys. These Ozu-like scenes are palpably held for a certain number of beats, in utter silence save for the subdued rhythmic, motivic clicking of the now-stilled machines and, sometimes, a quietly ongoing music as serenely detached yet curiously stirring as that of Herzog’s own beloved transcendental Popol Vuh.

© 1978 Ken Eisler

COUP POUR COUP
Direction: Marin Karmitz. Professional filmmakers, workers, students, and actors—almost 100 people in all—cooperated on the making of the film (all were paid the same salary).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.

Review: The Buddy Holly Story

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

If anyone had told me I was going to enjoy a movie called The Buddy Holly Story, I’d have nominated him as a prime candidate for the funny farm. But I went to see the thing at a trade screening on a slow summer afternoon, and I enjoyed it very much indeed. The pleasures were various. In a season dominated by movies hung on one musical hook or other and conceived as bubble gum for the eyes, ears, and mind, I took no small satisfaction in a film that not only served up distinctive music with gusto but did so without welshing on its obligation to move professionally and purposefully as film narrative. Also, with filmmakers at both the A and B levels shamelessly falling back on broad nostalgia as raison détre, structural strategy, and prime sales point, the makers of The Buddy Holly Story—the very title says it—had enough love and respect for the bygone sub-genre of the musical biopic to reach back and not merely recreate one as a sort of cinematic fossil exhibit in motion, but make a legitimate movie.

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Review: Convoy

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

Convoy continues Peckinpah’s voyage into “nihilist poetry,” in the phrase of Pauline Kael, which began to be dreamily insistent in The Killer Elite and became the whole show in Cross of Iron. At a glance, the new film looks closer to conventional narrative than that Yugoslav-based war picture, filmed in a nightmare neverneverland of green mud and orange blossoms of flame, with nary a Bo Hopkins or L.Q. Jones among Sgt. Steyner’s Teutonic Wild Bunch to certify the place as home. Convoy rumbles down a linear track in the modern American Southwest, accommodating a couple of days’ time in the lives of legendary badass trucker Rubber Ducky (Kris Kristofferson) and an ever-increasing number of his confreres, gathering initial impetus from a run-in with a trucker-hating, dirty-tricks-playing sheriff (Ernest Borgnine), and escalating through a series of deliriously ill-advised acts of rebellion that virtually compel the retributive/destructive force of The Law to come down on the vagabond heroes—these “modern cowboys,” as both a fatuous politician and the logic of Peckinpah’s own career would have it. Rubber Duck and some half-dozen good buddies, barreling toward the state line, gradually find themselves the vanguard of a vast caravan and the focus of a boundless populist movement whereby all sorts of abused “little punks” (Frank Capra’s phrase this time) get to sound off about everything from Nam and Watergate to the infamous “double nickel” national speed limit, which restricts private-enterprise commerce and just plain interferes with a fella going down his own road (cf. Jr. Bonner) at his own good time. The poetry comes in less through the occasional overlap ballet of trucks amid backlighted dust clouds—a rather film-student-y idea carried off no better than the average film student might–than in the bemusement with which Peckinpah piles on the improbabilities. Finally, Rubber Ducky and cohorts are no more driving through a real piece of the American Southwest than Sgt. Steyner and his platoon were walking through a documentary version of the Second World War on the Russian front.

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