[Originally published in The Weekly, September 15-21, 1982]
Bill Richert and Tony Perkins were standing on top of the world when somebody cut the power. From this eyrie, banked by vast computers and embraced by a luminous diorama of the solar system, John Cerruti (Perkins) could monitor every salient fact on the face of the globe, catalogue it, and consider its implications for the financial and political future of the Keegan dynasty—the Kennedyesque family and megaconglomerate whose ins and outs define the texture of modern reality in Richard Condon’s dazzling novel Winter Kills. Richert had whipped this kaleidoscopic narrative into a fluid screenplay and was halfway through the process of realizing the film itself. But in the giddy orbits of other, less reliably monitored galaxies, the source money twinkled away. Now, on the soundstage floor far below, studio representatives with no sense of irony were killing the lights, shutting his picture down. It stayed shut down for a year and a half.
It’s been like that throughout the history of this brilliant film. The $6.5-million project was announced in 1976: a major production to be shot on locations round the globe, and literally all-star at every level. Jeff Bridges and John Huston headed a cast that also included Perkins, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, Sterling Hayden, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, Ralph Meeker, and an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor. The production designer was Hitchcock mainstay Robert Boyle; the cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond. Maurice Jarre would compose the score. And the story! Just as Richard Condon had anticipated the assassination era with his ManchurianCandidate, so in WinterKills had he supplied the perfect metaphor for life after Watergate—a surrealistic study of Power from an incestuous inside view, with lashings of assassination conspiracy arcana and roman à clef titillation. A more unlikely candidate for shelving would be hard to imagine.
[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1997]
Black screen; the sound of a truck starting. Fade in on a drab morning, the parking lot of a roadside diner, and the truck itself, a long freighter that hauls itself into, across, and out of a Super-35 frame that, for one satisfying instant, it perfectly fills. As the engine roar recedes, a trenchcoated back looms in frame right, pauses a beat, then approaches the diner, camera following at elbow level. There is a young man seated on the ground near the diner entrance, head bowed, legs drawn up to his chest, like a fetus that has learned to sit up. The man in the trenchcoat stops and speaks to him—an older man’s voice: “Want a cup of coffee? Want a cigarette?” The young man takes his time looking up, as if he’d been somewhere else, and had already accepted that in that place he would never be spoken to again. He can see the man who’s standing over him; except for a blurred reflection in the nearby door, we still haven’t.
Gaston Monescu once observed that beginnings are always difficult. With movies, just the opposite is often true. The audience is eager to be caught up in something—a story, a vision, a mood—or they wouldn’t be there. It’s child’s play to turn on the engine; riding out the trip is hard. Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut, has a classical beaut of a beginning. The better, rarer news is that, having confidently taken the wheel, Anderson never loses his grip or his way. Like its opening shot, Hard Eight keeps us wanting to see more, and is equally satisfying in the ways that it does and doesn’t permit that to happen.
On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.
Revived and expanded from an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.
Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).
Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.
Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.
In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.
At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.
Sean Axmaker:You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?
Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.
A belated welcome to 2022 with one last look back at the best releases of 2021.
As most of us are no longer full-time critics, and many other are understandably wary about seeing movies in theaters at the moment, we haven’t had the same access to films as most film critics. For that reason, many of our regular contributors respectfully dropped out this year. For those of us who did participate, these are snapshots of what we have been able to see, and what impressed us over the last year.
Contributors listed in reverse alphabetical orders. Films listed in preferential orders (unless otherwise noted).
Moira Macdonald (Seattle Times)
Favorite movies of 2021
My Favorite Movie of the Year: The Power of the Dog The Movie That Gave Me the Most Joy: In the Heights The Movie I Most Wished I Could Have Seen on the Big Screen: Passing The Movie I’m Most Grateful to Have Seen on the Big Screen: Spider-Man: No Way Home The Movie That Was Exactly What I Thought It Would Be, and I Loved It: The French Dispatch The Movie That Wasn’t At All What I Thought It Would Be, and I Loved It: West Side Story The Movie With the Most Glorious Fashion: Cruella
Back in 2017, the most riveting screen experience I had was season one of Mindhunter (David Fincher et al.) on Netflix. In 2021 it was another Netflix limited series, Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, each of the seven episodes casting a spell all its own, mounting toward the extraordinary finale with its utterly unexpected swarm of conflicting emotions. Midnight Mass premiered in September. Most of the films on the Ten Best list and addenda came along later. And no, I haven’t seen Drive My Car.
1. The Lost Daughter 2. The Card Counter 3. The Power of the Dog 4. The Worst Person in the World 5. Licorice Pizza 6. Bergman Island 7. Titane 8. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn 9. Annette
I’ll forgo a tenth slot if I may salute Passing, The Last Duel, Don’t Look Up, Last Night in Soho, Dune (Part One), Red Rocket, and The Night House.
1. What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? (Aleksander Koberidze, George/Germany) 2. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA) 3. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan) 4. Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan) 5. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, USA/Australia/New Zealand etc.) 6. Herr Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth, Germany) 7. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, Romania) 8. The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes) 9. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)
1.Drive My Car (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi) 2.Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude) 3.No Sudden Move (Steven Soderbergh) 4.The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes) 5.The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion) 6.Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson) 7.Pig (Michael Sarnoski) 8.The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier) 9.Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman) 10.The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
10 Best Procession (Robert Greene, US) Swimming out Til the Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhangke, China) The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, U.S.) The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo, S. Korea) Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn/Uppercase Print (Radu Jade, Rumania) Days (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) There is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof, Germany, Iran) Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, NZ) Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Lili Horvat, Hungary) Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
Honorable Mention: Passing (Rebecca Hall, US) You Will Die at Twenty (Amjad Abu Alala, Sudan) Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
1. The Lost Daughter (Maggie Gyllenhall, US) 2. The Green Knight (David Lowery, US) 3. The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, US) 4. Spencer (Pablo Larrain, US/UK) 5. Drive My Car (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Japan) 6. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway) 7. The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, New Zealand) 8. Petite Maman (Céline Sciamma, France) 9. Quo Vadis, Aida (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia & Herzegovina) 10. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
Runners-up and honorable mentions: Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Sweden), C’mon, C’mon (Mike Mills, US), A Hero (Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France), The Last Duel (Ridley Scott, US), Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, UK), Passing (Rebecca Hall, US), Pig (Michael Sarnoski, US), Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, US), The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK), Titane (Julia Ducournau, France)
Surprises and joys: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum) – a whimsical comedy played for utter absurdity that came along just when I needed a belly laugh. Get Back (Peter Jackson) – an utterly immersive experience and an unexpectedly joyous exploration of creation and collaboration.
On September 28, 2021, the Seattle film community (and many other communities) lost a mainstay in Tom Keogh, and I lost my closest friend. Tom wore different hats in his life, but his interest in movies and his passion for writing about them was a constant.
I am sure I will write and talk about Tom many times in the future, but I thought it would be good to let him speak in his own voice. Thus we are re-printing a piece Tom wrote for The Informer, the monthly newsletter of the Seattle Film Society, in November 1984. This in itself was a kind of memorial: Truffaut had just died, and I wanted to do a tribute in The Informer. So I published a program note I’d written about Jules and Jim, and Tom wrote this piece on The Wild Child, which the SFS has just screened on a bill with Truffaut’s short, Les mistons.
I thought the piece, which begins with an adolescent memory, marked a turning point in Tom’s writing. I believe Tom did too. Some of his obsessions are here, and his communion with cinema, and his strong feeling for childhood. This piece is insightful on a particular film, but it also shows you a writer – which is what good film writing does. I hope it helps you appreciate our friend. (Thanks to Marni Wiebe-Keogh and Kevin Keogh for their blessing and the photo of Tom.) – Robert Horton
The Wild Child
by Tom Keogh
In the relations between artist and critic, everything takes place in terms of power, and curiously, the critic never loses sight of the fact that in the power relationship he is the weaker even if he tries to hide the fact with an aggressive tone; while the artist constantly loses sight of his metaphysical supremacy. The artist’s lack of perspective can be attributed to emotionalism, sensitivity (or sentimentality), and certainly to the more or less powerful dose of paranoia that seems to be his lot.
When I was a critic, I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema; La règle du jeu and Citizen Kane corresponded to this definition perfectly. Today, I demand that a film express with the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested in those films that do not pulse.
–Francois Truffaut, “What Do Critics Dream About?“
Seventeen years ago, I was a fat, morbid Catholic schoolkid in dreamland, sitting politely in a rented movie theater in Honolulu with a thousand other Catholic schoolkids who were, largely, running amok and having a better time than me for it. Why I was missing my freshman English that day and even (shudder) mixing with girls for this, I didn’t know. Then a local priest, popular with kids for his gentleness and slightly maverick reputation, walked slowly in front of the screen and quieted everyone.
“This is an experiment,” he said. “I asked your schools to let you be here for something new. I want you to really look at this movie today. Look for symbols, especially Christ symbols. See if you can understand why the hero is a Christ symbol. Then go back to your schools and talk about it.”
I looked. It was the first time I really looked at a movie at all: On the Waterfront. Afterward, I sensed there was more to talk about than how many times Marlon Brando fell and rose again, unaided, Christ-like, before wobbling all the way to the dock and redeeming the lifeless workers, but it didn’t matter. “Christ symbols” gave me a strange way to read a movie, but I got the idea I could do better. There was something living in the film, and now, between coming out of the closet about loving rock and roll (the anti-Christ in grade school; a valuable teaching tool in high school) and a desire to see more films, I had something to do with myself. Enter Francois Truffaut.
[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
“The Film Funding Corporation Limited in association with Vision IV” has produced a serviceable-enough Canadian low-budget shocker in Black Christmas and pitched it at the end-of-year trade. Unless I’ve missed some subtle subtext, the tie to Christmas is tenuous: an establishing shot of wassail seen through the windows of Gothic-looking Hart House, University of Toronto (decked out with Christmas lights and disguised as a sorority house in the college town of “Bedford”), and an advertising campaign built around a Christmas wreath gift-labeled “Season’s Greeting’s” and enclosing a still of a polyethylene-wrapped corpse propped in a rockingchair. One question about this campaign teases my mind more persistently than any puzzle propounded by the film itself. Did the merchandiser who dreamed it up personally place the apostrophe before that plural s in “Greetings,” as unselfconsciously as if he were scrawling the words on a wrapped Christmas gift in the sanctity of his own home; or could FCC Ltd./Vision IV in fact be trying to hip us, via their use of this endemic seasonal illiteracy (see also: Greetings from the Smith’s, The Smith’s Live Here, etc.) to their extraordinary concern in BlackChristmas for the exact social detail?
If I could only resolve this question of intent, I suspect it would help with other questions in the body of the film. Such as: when the roster of missing persons keeps swelling at that sorority house, and the bodies of murdered women are piling up in the attic, and conscientious, intelligent Lieut. Fuller (John Saxon) finally takes charge of the investigation, is his elementary failure to have the house thoroughly searched a sophisticated Hitchcockian reversal of audience expectations (1ook how sober and competent this cop seems … you assumed he’d be a great detective, didn’t you? … horse on you, chaps!)? or does it merely reflect the filmmakers’ helplessness in the face of the tact that one peek into the attic would reveal the dead bodies, the extension from which the killer has been making wildly obscene phone calls after each of his depradations within the house, and maybe the killer himself, thus ending the film? Similarly: when director Bob Clark hits us over the head for 85 minutes with the same soundtrack red herring, an ominous twang of piano strings, and then, in the last five minutes, unashamedly exposes his own dishonesty, does he expect us a) to retrospectively erase the sounds, and visual clues, too, that he has attached to shots of the killer at work? b) to laugh with him at this clever imposture? or c) to forgive him almost anything just because he transmutes a trick ending into cinematic gold? I confess to c. The conclusion is beautiful: a meld of fading sounds, shadows, and reflected lights; a smooth, slow travelling shot, a high overhead; a cop warming his hands outside the darkened, hulking Hart House; a sedated girl lying on the bed in a pitchblack room; silence; a phone ringing.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Black Christmas starts to get interesting in the last two minutes. After a series of killings in a college-town sorority house at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, the supposed murderer, in a scene we don’t actually get to see, has been done in by his own girlfriend and a handy firepoker when she thinks that he’s set on making her his latest victim. The movie is about to end on a shot looking from the hallway of the house into the bedroom where the girl (Olivia Hussey) is sleeping, having been left alone to rest until her parents show up in a few hours. Then, with the recurrence of a few familiarly ominous chords on the soundtrack, the camera begins slowly to pan to the right through the dimly lit hallway, pausing at each doorway where a murder has occurred. So far it’s just a kind of chilly atmospheric effect, prolonging the tone of malaise and spookiness, leaving us slightly off balance even though things have been pretty well wrapped up. But that ain’t all. The camera just keeps on trucking, and we begin to hear the maddened jabberings of the heard-but-not-seen psychotic killer who apparently is still around and who apparently wasn’t Keir Dullea, the boyfriend, after all. The latch on the attic trapdoor springs shut once again (that’s his hideaway), he gently rocks a dead girl—his first victim—who sits wrapped inside a plastic bag on a rocking chair (still we don’t see him), and the final scene of the movie looks at the house from a slightly elevated perspective across the street; a cop stands guard on the front walkway, listening to a phone ring inside. The killer, who made it a habit of saying obscene things over the phone before he murdered someone, still seems to be on the loose. Strange, but it doesn’t really seem to matter much by now.
Stopping with that chillingly evocative camera drift would perhaps have been a wiser move than such a clumsy attempt to inject a little Polanski-esque, Dance of the Vampires, evil-is-still-loose pessimism into BlackChristmas‘s modest cosmos of unabstract scariness. In plain narrative terms, the ending is a cop-out because the movie’s tensions have been based on the slowly and quite carefully developed implication of Keir Dullea as the culprit. We see him sweating over his piano during a demonic recital that consummates eight years of study at the conservatory, then smashing it with a microphone stand when he’s failed, ostensibly because his pregnant girl told him she wasn’t going to have the kid. Something he says to his girlfriend about abortion is repeated over the phone by a voice we have come to associate with the killer. And Dullea’s always lurking around the house, or in it, which renders him even more suspect since the killer is making his obscene phonecalls from an upstairs bedroom (why doesn’t anyone ever hear his crazy yappings, or bother to look in the house for the missing bodies?). But the final turn which BlackChristmas takes transforms the convention of the “twist” ending into the empty gesture of look-we-fooled-you; whereas, say, Donald Sutherland discovering that his red-hooded orphan is a murderous dwarf in Don’tLookNow is an example of a surprise ending that suddenly lends coherence to a mystery tale, the end of BlackChristmas only adds another narrative possibility to an already concluded yarn.
[Originally published in The Weekly, November 30, 1977]
He’s stacking frozen dinners in his shopping cart when he notices an attractive woman, fortyish, coming in out of the blank L.A. sun. She turns down another aisle; he decides he has to go to that part of the market too. She can’t quite reach a box on the top shelf; he gets it for her, gives an amiable no-sweat smile, cannily steers his cart elsewhere.
A minute later, he’s back beside her at the produce section. She smiles politely. He grabs an avocado and beams, “These are really great here!”
Her smile gets a little strained as she glances around the commonplace market: “Here?”
He’s losing the moment. “The only trouble is, there’s too much for one person. No matter what ya do, that other half is gonna turn black”—his cowpie grin spreads wider in desperation—”and rotten“—things aren’t going quite the way he hoped—”and slimy!” She’s gone.
As anyone of taste and discernment must know, Lou Grant lost his job at the end of last TV season when he and Mary Richards and Murray Slaughter—everybody except Ted Baxter—got fired from the news department at WJM-TV, Minneapolis. It was TheMary TylerMooreShow‘s unorthodox way of writing finis to itself after seven years as one of the most successful comedy series in the annals of the medium.
The MTM team wanted to quit while the show was still at top form—an admirable ambition, but one that threatened to leave a number of fine character actors at loose ends, and at least one splendidly ripened (far from rotten or slimy) character in syndicated limbo.
[Originally published in The Weekly, July 7, 1982]
My wife just told me that Lou Grant is going to be on in Lou Grant‘s time slot this week. This is something new and different. It had looked as if CBS, not content with having cancelled one of the best dramatic series in television history, wouldn’t even let it die in its own bed: for the past few weeks, the 10pm Monday berth has been consecrated to pumping ratings life into a piece of dreck called CagneyandLacey. Lou’s fans had begun to wonder whether they’d have a chance to bid him farewell.
Actually, part of me has always been getting ready to live with LouGrant‘s cancellation. Fear of that eventuality brought me out of the closet in November 1977 to do my first television review. This terrific show had been on for about a month and hardly anyone I knew, people who ought to like and value it, was watching. (They didn’t know about it; it was on too late for a weeknight; “I only watch public television.”)
Quality in television scored one of its rare victories that season: LouGrant survived despite slow-building ratings. On ABC or NBC it would have been chopped after thirteen weeks, if not sooner. But CBS had a tradition of nurturing distinguished slow starters (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Lou Grant, if not LouGrant, had been born). The network remained patient. Critics spread the word and so did more and more regular folks. The show’s viewing strength grew. Come one miraculous week in the summer of ’78, a LouGrant rerun copped number-one position in the Nielsens and Ed Asner beamed at us from the cover of People.
I breathed a sigh of relief along with Lou’s other fans, but remained apprehensive. That summer fluke aside (what else was there to watch that week?), the program’s numbers weren’t that great. Any time I happened to notice the weekly top 10, or even top 20, shows listed in TV Guide, LouGrant wasn’t among them. Although it was being spoken of casually as a “hit,” and had begun to be treated like an institution, the possibility of permanency still seemed remote. A network can’t make big bucks off an only moderate hit, no matter how regularly it wins Emmys for its star (1978) or itself (1979).
A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.