[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.
The Lovers on the Bridge (France, 1991) (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), Leos Carax’s tale of l’amour fou, was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time and one of the most ravishing made anywhere ever. It was also a commercial disaster, alternately celebrated as a triumph of personal expression and vilified as the French equivalent of Heaven’s Gate, and despite the presence of Juliette Binoche it was almost a decade before the film finally made it to American shores. The Lovers on the Bridge is the American title, a rather prosaic translation of Les Amant du Pont-Neuf. In French, the title references the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris and all the history and romance that name embodies.
Road to Nowhere is Monte Hellman’s first feature in 21 years. The director of The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop, a resolutely personal director who turned out drive-in pictures for Roger Corman and spent his career largely transforming work-for-hire productions into distinctive and mysterious films, spent years taking jobs as editor and second-unit director while one project after another failed to come together. Among his projects during that time was working with the Sundance institute, where he helped a young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino workshop a film called Reservoir Dogs. Hellman signed on as executive producer and helped Tarantino get his film made. The role of educator and mentor eventually took him to CalArts, the private arts college where he has been teaching for the past six years.
Road to Nowhere is a welcome return by a master filmmaker. It’s a film about making a film and a film within a film, with an unknown actress (played by Shannyn Sossamon) hired to play a role in a film based on a murky true story about a politician who embezzled $100 million and disappeared with a young woman. She may or may not in fact be the very woman she is portraying on film. The mystery may be real or a fiction within the film. This film’s director, Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), shares the same initials as Monte Hellman, and the echoes don’t end there.
This is a film aware of its existence as a film, constantly pushing against the nature of representation and storytelling. It’s a mystery where part of the mystery is what the mystery is really about. It’s the best film about the nature of filmmaking since The Stunt Man but with a very different approach to the blurring of life and art. Its name could serve as the alternate title to Hellman’s 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop and its play with doubles and characters in reflection recalls The Shooting, his starkly abstract 1968 western. It is a film with imagery as rich as paintings and characters roiling with anxiety even as they appear frozen in space. And it is a film in love with the mystery of cinema, a film about characters playing characters, about stories that shift as they are put on film, shift again as they are placed beside other stories in the editing, and once again shift as the audience pieces together the elements of the narrative. American filmmakers seem unable to stop and watch a character be. Hellman finds the most revealing moments between the beats of action, where characters at rest let their facades down. Or do they simply put on a different character for us to see?
Road to Nowhere opens Friday, August 19, for a week at Grand Illusion in Seattle’s U-District. I had the opportunity to speak with Monte Hellman by phone and discuss the film, his return to filmmaking and his unique take on cinematic storytelling.
Road to Nowhere opens with a character taking a DVD that has “Road to Nowhere” written across it in black marker, dropping it into a laptop DVD-ROM tray and watching a film called “Road to Nowhere” with its own credits sequence of fictional names. Why do you foreground the act of watching a movie at the beginning of us watching your movie?
Because it is a movie within a movie, or if you like, it’s all the movie within the movie. Maybe everything we’re watching is what he puts into that laptop.
I see a director making a film based on a “real life event” and getting father and farther from the event itself because he was finding the story that he wanted to tell, which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the event. He is searching for a story true to him, not true to the foggy facts of the mystery that inspired the script.
I think this is not untypical of making all movies. I think we start out with an idea and the movie, certainly this one, took over and it let us know what it wanted to be. It was a very interesting process. It was a process for me of letting go, of giving up on some of my concepts of being a control freak.
You’ve know Steve Gaydos, who wrote the screenplay, for years. He worked on Cockfighter almost 40 years ago and wrote the scripts to a number of your films. Did he write this original script specifically for you?
Bertrand Tavernier’s achingly beautiful A SundayintheCountry records one bittersweet day in the turn-of-the-century life of Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux), a 76-year-old painter in pastoral retirement. It’s Indian summer, that lavishly spendthrift season poised at the edge of winter. Edouard and Irène, the old man’s offspring, pay him a visit. An uneventful day, really, punctuated by little pleasures, small-scale estrangements and reunions a family gathering is always sure to promote. Still, in the privileged time-warp of this particular Sunday in the country, M. Ladmiral meets himself coming and going, from playful child to played-out graybeard. Every frame of the film mirrors a life’s promises and foreclosures.
Tavernier begins with an evocative prologue, uninsistently establishing the visual and spiritual dialectic that ultimately sums up a man and his art. While the screen’s still a black background for credits, we hear childish voices singing. Once in a while, a mildly remonstrating adult interrupts, bringing their spontaneity to heel. Then, an exasperated, maternal query: “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irène?” Black screen gives way to the film’s first image, window-framed: an exquisite Monet landscape of trees banked beyond a lawn, leaves and grass shimmering in liquid light. The camera passes through the open window so that the outdoor scene seems to become accidental art, uncomposed—but still held within the film’s own painterly frame of reference.
[Original published in The Weekly(Seattle), July 13, 1983]
It’s 1938 in the French-African village of Bourkassa and Lucien Cordier, the one-man local constabulary, can’t get no respect. The lone inhabitant of the jail, an ancient black trustee who once poisoned his wife, must have been incarcerated long before Lucien’s time, because Lucien never arrests anybody. Let one of the locals start getting rowdy and Lucien, if he can’t run the other way, does his damnedest to look the other way. Small wonder that the principal resident predators, a pair of bored pimps, don’t hesitate to make public sport of him, or that his immediate superior, a half-day’s train journey removed, treats him the same way. Lucien fares little better in his own home: his wife Huguette refuses to sleep with him out of general disgust and also because she’s busy carrying on with a live-in lout named Nono, who may or may not be her brother. All in all, Lucien Cordier is a congenital, if affable, loser.
He’s such a loser that when he finally, grandly announces “a decision,” it’s that “I decided I don’t know what to do.” This decision is imparted to his big-town superior, Marcel, who has his usual fun scrambling Lucien’s already-dim wits and booting his ass. Somewhere in the course of this lazy-afternoon exercise, Marcel carelessly gifts Lucien with An Idea: if you’re kicked, kick back twice as hard. Serenely bearing what he takes as carte blanche for retribution, Lucien climbs back on the train, returns to Bourkassa, and straightaway shoots down the pimps.
A belated welcome to 2021 with one last look back at the best releases of 2020.
It goes without saying that this has been an unusual year in every way. It is no less true for the year in cinema, as theaters shuttered across the nation (in Seattle, they were shut down for more than half of 2020). Many films were delayed by studios, some independent films chose the Virtual Cinema route, other films went the more tradition video-on-demand, and an unprecedented number of major films debuted directly to streaming services. That leaves the question “What qualifies as a 2020 film?” more open to interpretation. It also disperses the releases across a more varied landscape, making it harder to see everything that one might have access to in more normal years. That’s one reason our annual accounting is delayed this year. We’re just trying to grapple with the changes and catch up with what we can.
With that noted, here are the lists of Parallax View contributors and friends.
Contributors listed in alphabetical orders. Films listed in preferential orders (unless otherwise noted)
1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) 2. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao) 3. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov) 4. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) 5. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) 6. News of the World (Paul Greengrass) 7. The Assistant (Kitty Green) 8. Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell) 9. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg) 10. The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannel)
Absolute joy in a hard year: Bill and Ted Face the Music (Dean Parisot) and American Utopia (Spike Lee)
Great drama, dubious history: Mank (David Fincher) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)
And a few more memorable films (in alphabetical order): Ammonite (Francis Lee), Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho), Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa), Da Five Bloods (Spike Lee), Emma. (Autumn de Wilde) (the last film I saw in a theater), One Night in Miami (Regina King), Palm Springs (Max Barbakow), Sound of Metal (Darius Marder), The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson), Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart)
David Coursen (Washington, D.C.)
1. Dead Souls (Wang Bing, China) 2. Small Axe: Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, UK) 3. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, U.S.) 4. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, Russia) 5. Small Axe: Alex Wheatle (Steve McQueen, UK) 6. Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium) 7. The 40-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, US) 8. The Assistant (Kitty Green, U.S.) 9. Atlantiques (Mati Diop, Senegal) 10. (Tie): Small Axe: Mangrove/Lovers Rock/Education (Steve McQueen, UK)
Honorable Mention: Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie, U.S.), Bacurau (Kleber Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil)
And thanks to MUBI for, among much else, introducing me to the work of Yuzo Kawashima.
Robert C. Cumbow
I watched about 230 movies during 2020 (and the few weeks since), but only 14 were 2020 films. Of those, seven make my Top 10. I’d call them the most interesting films of 2020 that I saw, rather than the best, because I saw so few 2020 releases. Lots of catch-up to do in 2021. Most looking forward to Tenet and Synchronic.
First Cow When Forever Dies Bacurau Vast Of Night The Invisible Man Beanpole A Muse
My best home movie-watching experiences of the year were: Beau Travail on Criterion The Grey Fox on Blu-ray at last Mädchen In Uniform from Kino
I also loved catching up with: Dragged Across Concrete Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
1. House of Hummingbird (Kim Bora) 2. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) 3. The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell) 4. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg) 5. Mangrove (Steve McQueen) 6. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles) 7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) 8. Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello) 9. Relic (Natalie Erika James) 10. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
(as published at Scarecrow Blog) 1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) 2. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao) 3. Gunda (Victor Kossakovsky) 4. Fourteen (Dan Sallitt) 5. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen) 6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) 7. Ammonite (Francis Lee) 8. (tie) Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov) Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell) 10. French Exit (Azazel Jacobs)
Very close to making the last spot: Major Arcana, And Then We Danced, The 40-Year-Old Version, Babyteeth, Bacurau, Sound of Metal, The Assistant, The Invisible Man, La Verite, Vast of Night, Collectiv, Sorry We Missed You
Richard T. Jameson
First Cow Nomadland The Vast of Night Lovers Rock Beanpole Mank Promising Young Woman Never Rarely Sometimes Always The Assistant A White, White Day The Trial of the Chicago 7 / News of the World
First Cow Beanpole Nomadland Promising Young Woman Never Rarely Sometimes Always Lovers Rock (Small Axe) Ammonite The Vast of Night A White, White Day The Assistant
Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues, and Chadwick Boseman (in his final screen performance) is the fiery trumpeter in her band in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020, R), a drama of music, power, ambition, and race in America set at Chicago recording studio in 1927. Tony Award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe helms the screen adaptation of the August Wilson play and Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman costar. Davis and Boseman are favored to get Oscar nominations. (Netflix)
“Tenet” (2020, PG-13), Christopher Nolan’s high-concept thriller starring John David Washington as a nameless agent whose mission to save the world involves the unraveling of time, is a puzzle box of a mystery with spectacular set pieces. Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh costar. Nolan insisted that it get a theatrical release when major theaters were closed during the Covid lockdown, where it made back a fraction of its cost. Months later, it now debuts at home. (VOD and Cable On Demand, also on DVD and Blu-ray and at Redbox)
Here’s what’s new and ready to stream now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, video-on-demand, and other streaming services …
“I’m Your Woman” (2020, R) stars Rachel Brosnahan as a housewife who goes on the run when gangsters come after her husband (Bill Heck), who has kept his criminal life hidden from her, and she’s forced to fend for herself when they come for her. Julia Hart directs this 1970s throwback crime thriller costarring Arinzé Kene and Marsha Stephanie Blake. (Amazon Prime Video, also available in HDR)
The Broadway musical comedy “The Prom” (2020, PG-13), about a group of stage actors who descend on a small Indiana town to support a lesbian couple barred from attending their high school prom, comes to the screen from director Ryan Murphy with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and James Corden as the Broadway performers. (Netflix)
Meryl Streep also stars in “Let Them All Talk” (2020, R) as novelist with writer’s block on a sea cruise with old friends (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) she hasn’t seen in some time. Steven Soderbergh directs the film, which was partly improvised, and Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan co-star. (HBO Max)